You’re Not Scared Of Failing, You’re Scared Of Succeeding

Photographed by Beth Sacca.
The fear of failure is intrinsic to the human experience. Anxiety around a job application, a blooming crush or an important test is to be expected. But what about the fear of success? We’re told to spend our time chasing success with the assumption that we actually want success. The reality is that the thought of achieving our goals can feel as scary as failing them entirely.
“With success comes change. This fuels anxiety because we are creatures of habit who find comfort in our routines,” says psychiatrist Dimitrios Tsatiris. “We hesitate to enter uncharted waters even if this is our best course of action.”
Humans can be fickle like that — a shiny dream job looks perfect when it’s out of reach, but upon closer inspection, the new responsibilities can be daunting. A move overseas can feel like you’re fulfilling a lifelong dream, but the scrutiny that comes with the pressure to ‘make it’ can be overbearing. 
For life coach Elyssa Desai, her fear of success manifested in the form of shying away from marketing herself on social media. “A part of me was stuck thinking, ‘if I put myself out there and I am successful, what does that mean? What are people going to think?,’” she tells Refinery29 Australia.

What causes the fear of success?

There is a multitude of reasons that someone can experience a fear of success. Tsatiris suggests that pursuing a goal can drive up anxiety, especially when success equals an increase in responsibility and scrutiny. 
“Unconsciously you may be fearful of more responsibilities, being in the spotlight, your life changing, your relationships being impacted or life becoming more complicated,” Desai explains, adding that the belief that you’re not worthy of success is also a big contributor. 
“This can create an internal conflict where part of you strongly wants to be successful but part of you is stopping you achieving the success you desire.”

How does fear of success impact your life?

In a roundabout way, fear of success can be self-sabotaging. Sure, you might want something, but the part of yourself that’s fearful of actually achieving it can unconsciously encourage disruptive behaviours. 
Desai points to procrastination, avoidance of goal setting and premature quitting as some ways this expresses itself. “Although people may realise they are self-sabotaging, they don’t often link it to a fear of success as it’s not common to discuss being fearful of ‘positive’ things in life,” she says. 
That may be in part because of the toxic positivity mentality we’ve cultivated, particularly around work. Feeling anxious about your new job? You should be grateful you have one! Worried about getting married? But it’s what you've always wanted! This can make us feel guilty for feeling anything that’s not positive.

How can you overcome the fear of success?

In order to tackle your fear of success, Desai says to first show yourself compassion and to realise that fear isn’t a bad thing. 
"One of the most helpful things I have done for myself during my journey is recognising it is ok to feel fear. It doesn’t mean I need to run a million miles. In fact, I now see it as an exciting thing, I’m about to step out of my comfort zone, push myself to do something new and once I do it, realise I can do scary things,” she says.
Diving into our preconceived ideas about success can help shift our perspective too. Desai recommends exploring our feelings towards success — what it means to us now, as well as when we were younger. 
Below are some journal prompts from Desai that can help you untangle these thoughts:
— How were success and successful people spoken about when you were growing up?
— Did you feel your parents/significant adults in your life were successful?
— When you were younger, what did success mean to you?
— When you were younger, how did the people who you deemed to be successful seem? (i.e. happy, sad, stressed, mean, etc…)
— What does success look/feel/sound like to you now?
— If you achieved this all, what would that mean for your life/friendships/relationships/job/etc?
— What obstacles are in the way of you achieving your goals?
— Who has created those obstacles?
— How will achieving your goals impact your life in a positive way?
— How will achieving your goals impact your life in a negative way? (Spend some time reflecting on this area, will it actually negatively impact your life or is that a story you are telling yourself, how might these thoughts be false, do you have any previous examples of when you thought this way but the negative outcomes didn’t happen?)
Lastly, get comfortable with the idea of success. For women, in particular, imposter syndrome and self-doubt can take its toll and make us feel undeserving of our achievements.
“Visualise your success. Allow yourself to relax and spend five minutes imagining reaching the success you’re dreaming of. How does it feel, look and sound? Become comfortable with being in this place and remind yourself you are safe to reach this level of success," Desai says.
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