11 | Fear of Success? Why Desired Change Can Be Hard To Implement

Perfectionism and a fear of failure can hold us back from doing what matters to us. But what about fear of success? In this episode of The Gentle Rebel Podcast, we look at the role fear can play when it comes to holding back so things don’t go too well.

I was inspired by this episode of Kendra Patterson’s Stepping Off Now podcast. She drew from an article called, 8 Reasons a Fear of Success, Not Failure, Is Holding You Back to ask whether “Fear of Success” is anything more than another term for a fear of failure.

I take this question and explore it further. If it IS different to a fear of failure, what is it we are actually afraid of? What IS success? And can our wariness and suspicion help rather than hinder our relationship with meaningful change, progress, and growth?

Change as a Threat | 2:16

Success can feel like a threat to our sense of safety. Change is often difficult to embrace and instigate, even when we deeply desire it.

There are a lot of unknown aspects when it comes to making change happen in our lives. Even if we are excited about having it, we can struggle to get going if we don’t have a safe and simple map to follow. We choose old patterns, behaviours, and choices over the fear of discomfort and uncertainty. The “Mere Exposure Effect” or Familiarity Principle says that when we make choices, we tend to gravitate towards preferences for things we recognise.

But What IS Success? | 7:17

Have you ever thought about what success actually means? How would you define it? Maybe it’s a feeling. Perhaps it’s a state of being. Or a context-specific outcome. It’s a word that can mean many different things. Yet we often expect everyone to be on the same page with it.

I saw the phrase, “we all want to be successful” a lot when reading about this topic. At first glance, it seems like an obvious thing to agree with. But think about it for a moment and the words become slippery and empty. What do we mean by “successful”? Is your definition the same as mine? Do we value the same things?

8 Reasons Fear of Success Might Be Holding Us Back

In the original article, the author gives eight reasons fear of success might cause someone to sabotage their own progress towards things that matter to them.

1. We’re Afraid of the Unknown | 9:27

We might worry that we won’t cope with the changes success might bring. What waits around the corner if this goes to plan? Maybe we fear the unknown potential consequences of success. What if we can’t cope with everything that follows? What if we accidentally invent an atomic bomb?

2. We’re Afraid of the Demands Success Might Make of Us | 12:02

What happens when I achieve this goal? Are people going to demand more, bigger, better? Will I lose creative control? Will everyone want a piece of this? A piece of me? That sounds exhausting.

3. We’re Afraid of the Responsibility Success Might Bring | 14:12

In Top Gun, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is satisfied with his position as a naval captain. After many decades of service, he still gets to fly planes and do what he enjoys so much. People assume that something must have gone wrong in his career. Surely he should have risen through the ranks by now. But that’s not the case. He has never wanted that. Success for him is understanding what he loves and doing as much of it as he can.

Success might mean adding more responsibility to our bag. But if that responsibility seems like a burden rather than an opportunity, we might be operating within someone else’s definition of success.

4. We’re Afraid of the Attention Success Could Attract | 15:52

Some people love being the centre of attention. While others would find it enough of a threat to play small and avoid success at all costs, if it means everyone looking at them. But it doesn’t need to be a binary choice. There are plenty of very successful people who most of us wouldn’t recognise if they were in front of us at the supermarket checkout. Prolonged attention and exposure is usually a choice we have to keep making.

5. We’re Afraid of Losing Our Identity | 17:53

We are always in a state of becoming. As life changes so do we. Picking up and shedding various identities we might need to use along the way. Our sense of identity (who we appear to be to the outside world) is always in flux. It becomes less important when we focus on strengthening and building our character (who we are on the inside). As we grow and shed certain identity labels, rwe might no longer fit by the crowd’s standards, expectations, and rules.

6. We’re Afraid Success Won’t Bring Us Happiness | 19:43

We might fear coming face to face with the truth that no success can bring us ever-lasting wholeness, satisfaction, or happiness. If we attach magical thinking to a particular pursuit (“achieving this will make my life perfect”), then it’s an understandable fear. We unconsciously recognise that “success” will be disappointing. Better to self-sabotage and believe that the success that eludes us holds the key to happiness than to find out first-hand that it doesn’t.

7. We’re Afraid of Losing Those We Care About | 21:10

Relationships are dynamic creatures. They morph and change over time. What does it mean to fear losing those we care about when we succeed? Drifting apart because of time pressures? What if the integrity of our most important relationships is part of our overall definition of success?

8. We’re Afraid We Might Get Carried Away with Success | 24:21

Is this about getting carried away with the frenetic and endless pursuit of achievements? That seems to be counter to a healthy definition of success. It is an avoidable type of drift.

Foreboding Joy | 28:06

In a Haven Kota session, we talked about the relationship between success and joy. What if a successful life is simply a joy-fuelled life, where we unapologetically live in a state of deep self-acceptance and authenticity?

Some of us might have developed a sense of superstitious distrust about joy. We might feel that allowing ourselves to experience joy sets us up for disappointment. In this sense, fear of success is a fear of joy.

This is described by Brené Brown when she says:

“Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We’re afraid that the feeling of joy won’t last, or that we won’t be enough, or that the transition to disappointment (or whatever is in store for us next) will be too difficult. We’ve learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?

Don’t squander joy. We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience, and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen — and they do happen — we are stronger.”

– Brené Brown

Anticipatory Grief | 31:54

“This too shall pass” is a mantra that works to help us get through hard times, but also to remember the fragility and preciousness of the good times. While at first glance anticipatory grief might appear dour, it brings us to life in the present. Where we might enjoy our blessings, embrace gratitude, and live in communion with the passing of time and the inevitability of change.

Emily Agnew says that “to mourn something is also to celebrate it”. She suggests that “mourning things in advance does not count as Gloomy Behavior”, rather it “introduces dangerously Grateful Tendencies” and can “heighten our awareness of all that is most precious”.

These concepts help us hold less tightly to fear of change, loss, uncertainty etc. And to embrace the dynamic nature of reality.

Wariness of Success | 34:24

Wariness comes from the same root as awareness: to perceive, be watchful, and express vigilance.

Deep processing is a major aspect of sensory processing sensitivity. Highly Sensitive People might anticipate potential consequences and implications of change that are overlooked or ignored by other people. This is a really valuable trait but might be seen as negative in a world that values outward expansion, perpetual growth, and progress above depth, sustainability, and integrity. It might even come across as negative, cynical, and “holding things back” at times.

Have you ever felt like you can anticipate potential risks that others seem to overlook or ignore? Does this feel like a positive thing?

The wariness of highly sensitive people can be a huge benefit to society. Anticipating problems down the line, connecting dots and predicting future trends and shifts. But it’s often overlooked or ignored. And the “prophets” are sometimes shunned and shamed.

The truth is, that most people don’t like to look at problems or potential obstacles. Especially if it requires them to stop and change a particular course of action.

Fearing success has a very healthy side to it. It helps us prepare for and respond to the negative residue of our pursuits. There are almost ALWAYS negative aspects of success.

The Trappings of Success | 44:40

Our wariness of success is an important thing to listen to. There are VERY real risks that can come with making a change or pursuing success.

Anticipating and planning for what is likely to happen is different from worrying about what COULD happen. Wariness gives us practical actions to take so we can be confident in the path ahead. Worry is an endless and unresolvable loop.

Wariness is a definable pause. It allows us to assess, analyse, and decide how we want to proceed based on other factors (our values, potential implications on a variety of things, how it will impact us in general etc).

Doing Well, Doing Harm and Business as Usual | 46:29

In their book, Active Hope, Joanne Macy and Chris Johnstone write, “Each story of how we see the world carries within it assumptions about what we mean by “doing well” and “doing harm.” Within Business as Usual, a country is doing well if its economy is growing. A business is doing well if it is expanding. A person is doing well if their income is increasing.”

Success is often restricted to a lens of outward growth and expansion. But this definition has serious consequences. And true success is about so much more than this. It has to be.

Feelings And The Fear Of Success | 58:06

Many of us carry a version of “success” that we might have never questioned. It is tied up with the story we were given by other people. Fear of success might be tied to the fear of a particular feeling related to our own desires and dreams around making changes in life. For example, it’s wrong to get what you want. Or that it’s wrong to want anything at all. We might fear the judgement that tells us we are ungrateful or unworthy, so we hold back, play small, and live in service of other peoples’ desires instead.

Conclusion

It’s not clear whether fear of success is really a factor in how we might sabotage our own relationship with change. But I think I would suggest that it’s more than fear of failure in disguise. It’s complicated and contextual. And it largely depends on how we conceptualise and define success.

So, what does success mean to you? Have you ever given this much thought? Write down a definition. Open a conversation with yourself. Don’t worry about getting it “right”. There is no correct answer. It’s a word full of contradiction and nuance. It’s deeply personal and it’s full of baggage. What would it mean to live a successful life? How would you know when you’re there?

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