I saw the bright yellow headline: “Are you afraid of success?”
It irritated me so much that I slapped the magazine back onto the waiting room table.
Who is afraid of success!? I thought. I’m sick of people inventing anxieties and then foisting them upon the rest of us!
Well. (:: scuffs shoes ::)
Funny thing that I’ve come to learn:
MANY of us are afraid of success. But we don’t often realize it.
We may see little evidences that something’s off:
– That we are working slowly, hesitantly, or not at all.
– That we’re mentally upgrading every Facebook notification to Urgent! Must Go Read! status and taking every sniffle as a clear sign we’re not well enough to work.
– That we’re making beautiful, detailed marketing plans and not actually doing any of the checklist items.
– That we’re getting partway through our plans, and then not showing up at a key moment because we were knocked down by a wave of anxiety.
Fear of success is easy to miss, because it looks a lot like garden-variety procrastination and insecurity.
It’s easy to shrug fear of success off by saying “meh, I’m just procrastinating” and never bother to look closer. Maybe they are the real problems, of course – and maybe they’re not. One thing is for sure: Procrastination is hard to stop if it’s not ‘just’ procrastination.
So today, let’s take a good look at where the fear of success can show up in your life. If any particular ‘symptoms’ prick at your heart, take note.
“Succeeding” looks a little different for everyone, and so everyone’s ‘symptoms’ will be a bit different.
Success might be measured in followers, income level, available space in your calendar, or simply how you perceive yourself. I’m not here to judge your metrics. I only bring this up to say that the way you define success will change the possible fear symptoms you experience. It’s worth looking at each one.
Here are six symptoms of fear of success.
See if any of these statements resonate with you:
#1: “What if I don’t actually want the spotlight on me?”
You might observe and admire the success of others, wishing that when you posted something on Instagram, it was met with hundreds of instant likes.
But then again, you don’t actually like the spotlight. The idea that hundreds of people are looking at you and evaluating you is kind of freaky.
Plus, what if you stop being entertaining and the spotlight goes away? What if it’s more painful to gain and then lose the spotlight than to never have had it at all?
Having thousands of strangers stop by and gawk takes you out of your loving, cozy corner with familiar friends and family.
That’s scary. And the idea of an audience amplifies another possible fear –
#2. “What if a gathering audience brings out detractors, trolls, and assorted meanies?”
When you duck your head a little and play to a small audience of existing fans, you typically hear little else but kindness and praise. Even failed attempts are met with support and “well, you’ll get ’em next time!”
When a small group of fans know and love you, you rarely have to defend yourself or guard your emotions.
I once heard a YouTube star talk about her growing audience. She said something like, “I can always tell when a video of mine went viral, because the number of nasty comments explodes. New views bring new viewers, which is great, but along with them come new trolls. I’ve had to learn to see these surges in negativity and just say to myself ‘Oh good, I’m reaching more people!'”
The bigger you get, the more people there will be who miss your point, launch tirades, throw grenades of useless criticism (even if you’d be okay with helpful critique), and generally vandalize your emotional space. That’s less comfortable than your current cocoon of people who have known you for a long time, give you the benefit of the doubt, and are invested in both you and your work.
It’s easy to want to stay where you are.
#3: “What if, when the time comes, I won’t deliver?”
This fear is NOT about a lack of actual skill. (Of course if you actually can’t do a job, you shouldn’t take it. That’s unrelated to what we’re talking about here.)
This particular fear arises after it’s clear you have the capability to do something. When, despite having the skills, you haven’t started getting or even reaching for the jobs you’re ready for. Because you’re worried – what if you choke? Then everyone will think you can’t do it.
The Impostor Syndrome can sneak in here. The Impostor Syndrome, as the name implies, is a where you start to think your own success is just a charade on your part. That despite an indisputable external track record of accomplishments, you’re afraid that you’re going to be exposed as a fraud. You think everything was just luck, or you barely managed to pull it off, and you’re afraid that you won’t do it this time and everyone will know.
Plenty of high-achieving people have Impostor Syndrome.
In fact, Impostor Syndrome sufferers often work several times harder than actually necessary to make sure they don’t fail. But that just perpetuates the cycle because they think they succeeded only because they barely pulled it off with all that work, and they actually aren’t skilled.
It’s not true, of course. (But when did truth ever make feelings feel less real?)
And if you suffer from the Impostor Syndrome, you’re going to be afraid that this next big job will prove that you have been a fraud all along, and everyone will see.
So you keep yourself in a holding pattern of doing safe, low-profile, undemanding, boring work. Even as you look to the next level and long to be there.
#4: “I’m afraid success will turn me into something I don’t want to be.”
Sometimes, fear of success comes from having certain ideas about successful people. Like:
“Successful people are all loud. They’re all popular. They’re obsessed with money. They’re kind of jerks. I’m not loud or popular, and I don’t want to turn into that.”
“I know someone who became successful and then started being really snobby.”
“Some of the people I most admire for their kindness and goodness are not what you’d consider ‘successful.’ And that’s okay. So maybe I should be like them. Plus, I saw an article once about how CEOs are all narcissists, so obviously nice people don’t seek that out.”
Thinking that success is correlated with terribleness can hold you back from doing your work. Who would want to turn into an unlikeable ogre?
#5. “I’m worried that if I become successful, I won’t have time for the things I do now.”
If you had the business you want, how would the way you use your time change?
Maybe you’d have to double or triple the clients – and therefore, the work hours. Or you’d need to hire help and have to spend time managing people. Or you’d spend a lot more time doing technical, spreadsheety things that make the corner of your right eye twitch.
What about your kids, your volunteer work, and the dust collecting on your workout DVDs? What if you don’t WANT your eye to twitch?
Success sounds kinda stressful, then. No one wants to work all the time. And if all you currently see accompanying “yay my client list is full” is “wow, I won’t be able to read my kids bedtime stories anymore,” then you’re probably going to quietly hold yourself back.
#6: “I don’t actually want things to change.”
You probably have a pretty good work routine now. Or at least, you know what “working” looks like. You come home, you fire up the laptop, do 3-5 things you’re used to doing, check Facebook, send some emails, and are done for the night.
Running a fully successful business might require you to do a totally different set of things. Installing and using new programs, hiring assistants, writing new contracts, meeting new people, mastering new skills, trying new marketing avenues, and generally just doing a bunch of stuff that you’re not doing now.
It’s easier to keep opening your laptop, doing the 3-5 things, checking Facebook, and sending some emails.
Humans aren’t terribly motivated to do extra work. Even simply changing a routine requires the effort of figuring a new one out – never mind the work the new routine entails. It’s also just hard to get your head around a new set of relationships, roles, and tasks. Change is scary and hard to imagine beforehand.
Do any of these sound familiar? So what now?
Here’s your assignment.
Fill in the blanks:
1) Success to me is: ___________________________________________________
And it would be great if ___________________________.
2) What feels scary about that?
You might have to fiddle with the question. If you think “Nothing feels scary about making a hundred thousand dollars with a long waiting list” – then maybe this isn’t your issue, but you could also try these questions:
What would have to change for me to get there? What feels uncomfortable about that?
What am I putting off doing that would get me there? What feels so noxious about it that I’m avoiding it?
You can only solve a problem if you identify it first.
Next time I’ll tell you exactly how to walk these fears back – but you have to locate them first.
In the meantime, let me know in the comments if there are other ways you’ve had a fear of success come up for you – it always helps to hear from many experiences!