The Fear of Success: What does it Really Mean?

Conquering the fear of failure is often considered a quintessential stepping stone on any journey from sketch to success. Every so often though, you’ll also hear someone ask you to consider if what holds you back is actually the fear of success. You might hear this from motivational speakers, or wise sages who sound like their cryptic musings and parables must have great depth. The mention of ‘fear of success’ so often evokes much existential pondering and contemplations about the meaning of life, our darkest shadows within, and whether the person making the suggestion is being helpful or just trying to mess with our heads.

So what does the fear of success really mean? Why would anyone actually be afraid of achieving something they set out to achieve? And if we do find ourselves self-sabotaging out of this fear, how can we stop, and forge ahead to achieve and celebrate our greatest ambitions and goals?

Why do we actually fear success?

When we strive for success in something with a sincere commitment, there’s usually a lot of change demanded of us. We’re required to learn new skills, adopt new beliefs and attitudes, and when the success is profound enough, we’re confronted with a need to shift our sense of self – effectively altering our identity to allow for the success we desire to become attainable. This is typically a normal process that happens quite gradually and in subtle ways, sometimes over a period of months and years.

However, sometimes the success demands greater change in a much shorter period of time, and we become aware, even if only at a subconscious level, of the need for an identity level change. It’s this identity level change associated with success that we come to fear the most. Have you ever met an aspiring writer who had an infectious level of passion for writing, but never actually published anything? Have you come across a struggling entrepreneur who had a brilliant take on a product or service, but simply wouldn’t pick up the phone to make a sales call?

Chances are that they valued the identity they held along with their aspirations more than the uncertainty or responsibility that came with the identity required to achieve those aspirations. Achieving great success as a writer requires you to first become a writer, and achieving great success as an entrepreneur requires you to first become an entrepreneur.

What can we do about it?

Firstly, acknowledge what you’re afraid of losing. Try asking yourself this simple question, “What might I lose that I value if I achieve this success?” It might take you a while to get past the instinctive answer, “Nothing. I won’t lose anything.” Nonetheless, there’s always an inevitable cost involved with change, and sometimes we’re afraid of that without even being conscious of what it is. When we take the time to acknowledge it, we can start to assess and appreciate that the success may actually be more valuable than what we might lose.

Next, get absolutely clear and specific on what your life will be like once you’ve achieved the success you’re afraid of. What will your day to day routine be? Where will you live, work and play? Who will you do business with, and who will you hang out with? What will you do in your spare time and how will that make you feel? Ultimately the answers to these questions will come together to give you a sense of who you will become when you achieve this success.

Finally, break the process down into milestones. Many people make the mistake of either dreaming too big all at once, getting overwhelmed with their vision, or constantly operating on a daily check list basis, getting lost in the details and losing sight of the bigger picture of their success. Big dreams and short-term check lists are useful, but having periodic milestones to celebrate at regular intervals will make the changes you experience much more comfortable, and your greater success that much easier to achieve.