The Examined Life: The Fear of Success
By Tom Moon, MFT
Recently in this space I discussed the fear of failure, a fear that anyone can understand. But the idea that some people might be afraid of success sounds strange. The word just means “a favorable result.” How could anyone be afraid of that?
Yet everyone knows people who are their own worst enemies, who regularly sabotage themselves and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Is it possible that some people inflict this kind of pain on themselves because on some level they fear that success would be even more painful? I think so.
The most common reason for fearing success, in my experience, is the idea that it’s undeserved, and that idea is almost always the result of (usually irrational) guilt feelings. It’s almost a psychological law that when people feel guilty, they also feel driven to atone for their guilt by taking away from themselves something they value. Much self-sabotaging behavior is really unconscious self-punishment for feelings of guilt.
Another reason some people fear success is that they believe their success will cause suffering for someone else. If you succeed in losing weight, will that humiliate your partner who just can’t seem to do it? If you make more money than your father did, will that be “showing him up”?
Patients in psychotherapy are often surprised to discover how much they hold themselves back from going forward so as not to be more successful than a parent, even, amazingly, if that parent is long dead. I’ve worked with a number of alcoholics, for instance, who sabotaged their recovery out of loyalty to an alcoholic parent who was never able to get sober.
Some people believe that their success will be dangerous to them because of how other people will react to it. The fear is that if I succeed others will judge me with a more critical eye. They’ll expect more in the future than I’ll be able to deliver. If I hit a home run, they’ll always expect home runs, and the boos will be louder when I don’t deliver.
Another fear, especially for people who grew up in competitive families, is that their friends will be jealous and resentful if they succeed. The idea is that it’s lonely at the top and that you’re only loved if you stay in the safety of mediocrity.
The moral is that if you suspect that you’re holding yourself back from attaining your goals, some serious self-reflection may be in order. Ask yourself if some part of you believes you don’t deserve success, or that it might be dangerous to you.
As motivational specialist Theodore Bryant writes, “A subconscious negative perception about success can overpower our conscious desire to attain it….With fear of success, as with all subconscious forces, we’re powerless to fight it as long as we are not fully aware of its existence.”