People often hear about the fear of failure, but people may also experience a fear of success. This may sound contradictory, since much of society prizes success. Careers and many other areas of life can depend on successes of various types, so a fear of success is unusual.
Success, though, often brings change and more and different responsibilities. This can be anxiety-provoking and scary. It can also make a person more visible, which not everyone enjoys.
As with other phobias (excessive, persistent, and irrational fear of an object or situation), fear of success can interfere with one’s life and cause significant distress, but there are treatments available. This article will discuss fear of success, its causes, how it’s treated, and how to cope.
Fear of success can look different from person to person. Signs and symptoms can include:
- Low goals: You set goals that don’t really challenge you but keep you where you are in life.
- Perfectionism: You set goals and expectations for yourself that are so high that you never succeed at them.
- Quitting: Quitting prevents you from achieving success.
- Self-sabotage: Alcohol, drugs, or other self-destructive behaviors get in the way of progress and success.
Other signs include never speaking up at a team meeting, not taking on leadership roles or new projects, or not talking with your boss about a raise or promotion.
Diagnosing a specific phobia, like fear of success, is done by a trained professional. You may get help by asking your healthcare provider for a referral to the appropriate mental health professional.
Even if your fear of success doesn’t meet the full criteria for specific phobia, a mental health professional can identify aspects of the fear that can be worked on.
Clinical diagnostic criteria for specific phobias involve:
- Persistent fear is unreasonable or excessive and can even occur when anticipating the feared object or situation.
- Exposure to the feared situation or object causes immediate anxiety, like a panic attack.
- The person knows the fear is excessive.
- Feared situations or objects are avoided or handled with significant distress or anxiety.
- Avoiding the situations or objects significantly interferes with a person's routine, work, social situations, or lifestyle.
- Persistent fear of the object or situation lasts at least six months.
- The persistent fear cannot be explained by another mental health disorder.
Talking with a professional about your feelings, experiences, and behaviors with school or work will help them find ways for you to manage your fears.
There may be a variety of reasons someone develops a fear of success. These can include:
- Learning from experiences: If someone succeeds and has resulting negative experiences, or sees someone else succeed with negative results, they may connect success with these negative outcomes and learn to fear it.
- Fear of negative consequences: Women are more likely to fear negative reactions to success and self-promotion because of gender stereotypes or expected gender roles. Women are more likely to associate success with negative consequences, which may also contribute to fear of success.
- Imposter syndrome: Even if someone is successful, they may feel like they didn’t really earn or deserve their success, or they’re afraid that they’re faking their accomplishments. They fear succeeding because they’ll be “found out” or they won’t be good enough.
- Lack of self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is a belief in your ability to complete tasks or achieve goals. Feeling as though you can’t accomplish your goals can cause you to become more scared of succeeding (which also ties into the imposter syndrome). Increasing feelings of self-efficacy, or the feeling of being able to achieve, can reduce the fear of success.
Psychotherapy can be very helpful for phobias and for treating a fear of success.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that has proven to be very effective in treating and managing anxiety, phobias, and related disorders. In CBT, the person works through how their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are all connected. Uf changes are made in one area, this results in changes in the other areas.
In treating a fear of success, a CBT therapist might work with a person to overcome their negative thoughts about success, which can change how they perform or behave at school or work—which can then change how they feel about success.
Reframing situations (looking at them in new ways) and learning how to do the therapeutic homework is also part of CBT. It can help you in everyday situations.
There are ways to cope with your fear of success that do not involve self-sabotage or avoiding achievements. Thinking about your fear, its origins, and the behaviors associated with it are all part of coping with it—and not avoiding it.
Phobias involve a stress reaction. Better managing your stress can help promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. Things you can do include:
- Eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep.
- Practice deep breathing.
- Practice relaxation techniques and stress reduction.
- Minimize your use of caffeine and alcohol to help reduce anxiety.
- Learn your triggers.
- Stay connected to others for social support.
- See a counselor to talk through anxieties or concerns and learn coping techniques.
Fear of success is a specific phobia that can significantly impact your life. It can cause anxiety and distress and interfere with school, work, and your lifestyle. It may be caused by various things, including past experiences or fear of negative consequences.
While phobias or significant fears don’t typically go away on their own, treatments are available. If you’re struggling with fear of success, you don’t have to handle it yourself. Talk with your healthcare provider about what your feeling. They can connect you with a counselor who can help.
A Word From Verywell
Although fear of success can feel like a major hurdle, there is treatment available that can help you reframe and work through your feelings and cognitions. A mental health professional can help you develop the tools to manage your fears and move forward.