What is behind the fear of success?

Fear of success has always been a bit of a puzzle for me, who would ever fear success? Success is good! Everybody wants to be successful, that is what we all thrive for, to be successful in our endeavours.


But fear of success is complex. Let's take the example of a client, Claire. Of course, Claire is not afraid of being successful at getting the promotion that she’s had her eye on. If she were to get that promotion she’d be ecstatic, that would be a great win for her.

No, what she’s afraid of is more sneaky than that.

She is afraid that even if she gets the promotion, she will not deserve it. She will have to work extra hard to deliver what is expected and her quality of life will decrease. She will work longer hours and feel stressed and anxious. Everybody around her will see that she's not doing a good job and will judge her. All this will deteriorate her personal relationships.

Wouldn’t it be easier to not get it and never know that harsh reality?

She’s afraid because deep down, there is a part of her that doesn’t believe that she can live up to these expectations. She’s already struggling to live up to what she’s doing now.

Now, what is this all based on? She’s not doubting herself because of the environment she’s in. It is true that in some cases, the environment will very much feed into her doubts. But in this scenario, Claire’s work environment is healthy and supportive.

She gets great feedback from her manager and peers, everybody says she’s doing a good job. They will add that she could “have more confidence in herself and speak up more” when pushed for feedback.

That last part is her putting a damper on her performance, because of her fear of success. It’s how it manifests.

Fear of success can take different forms, including:

  • procrastination
  • unclear goals and lack of self-discipline to reach them
  • self-sabotage

For Claire, it’s self-sabotage. It prevents her from “showing up” as who she is, she second-guesses herself at every turn, and she expects that what others are saying is more valid or right than what she has to say.

Why does she want the promotion anyway?

That is a good question actually. Many of my clients confess they are where they are through no real decision or choice on their part. They have done the studies that would give them “the best chance at finding a job” or would “not close any doors”. They are going for society's template of success: a well-paid job, a spouse, a mortgage, and possibly kids. On paper, to neighbours, family and old-school friends, they’re successful.

They never ask themselves, “what do I want?”. They did, but not really. That is quite an existential question, what do I want? What if, what I want, is the opposite of everything I've worked for? What if what I want will make me look like a failure? What if there is nothing I want and I’m destined to be content on the surface and miserable and shallow inside? What if I can’t have what I want? And I forever live in regret and bitterness of not having been able to achieve the one thing I wanted.

Seriously, wouldn’t it be better for Claire to stay where she is? Unhappy-ish, and stressed-ish, but showing a good face and looking like she’s trying. In other words: good enough.

Where is this fear of success coming from?

To what extent has Claire experienced success in her life, and what were the consequences of it?

An interesting story Claire shared is when she was nine or 10, she won a TV at an event's draw. That was a big win for a little girl and she was very proud and happy about it. She even got her picture in the local newspaper as the lucky winner. Her mother asked Claire to "donate the TV" to the family, which consisted of Claire, her mother and her brother.

Claire complied, and her mother put the new TV in the living room. Claire was beaming. But then, her mother took the old TV and put it in her brother's bedroom. The brother had been asking for a gaming console and the existence of a spare TV now made the gift possible. Claire was deeply hurt by what she viewed as a betrayal. It didn't matter to Claire that the TV wasn't connected and that her brother couldn't actually watch TV on it. All she could see was that the win caused her hurt and betrayal, and benefited another. What a terrible lesson to learn about success.

A number of Claire's childhood successes left her feeling like a failure, even though she had achieved success. It was worse than failing, because she did good, and she felt unfairness, betrayal and hurt. It made her feel unloved and unworthy. This has left a mark. And now, when she's on the verge of achieving success, an unconscious part of her mind braces for the blow that is sure to follow.

Wouldn't it have been easier, less painful, to not have won the TV at all?

Claire is an adult now. She's independent, she's doing well, and she's smart and resourceful. Those patterns of the past no longer need to hinder her. She is free to make her own choices.

A couple of things have helped Claire on her way to feeling comfortable with success:

  • getting some clarity on what she wants and what is important to her
  • facing those fears and learning stress management techniques
  • working on her confidence and self-worth
  • breaking those patterns and rewiring her brain with new more helpful behaviours

If this article resonates with you and you'd like to explore it further, feel free to visit my profile and reach out to learn more.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London NW3 & Bicester OX26
Written by Cecile Hemery, Career and Executive Coach (ICF PCC)
London NW3 & Bicester OX26

Cecile helps executive women who feel stuck or at a crossroads:
- to thrive at work and feel fulfilled by having clarity, focus and taking action.
- to increase confidence and resilience,
- to improve their leadership skills and communications.
Cecile is an accredited Life and Executive coach and has 15y experience working in the Tech industry.

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