Fear of Success: What It Is and How to Manage It

Recent psychological studies point to the idea that “fear of success” can be a very real, and in some cases, debilitating condition...

Have you ever heard a nagging voice in the back of your head, trying to convince you that you don’t deserve success? Perhaps you are in a position where you could easily make a name for yourself in your career, but opt instead for lower-paying work or less exposure. Maybe you work hard to be successful, but are always too afraid to seize opportunities when they come up.

The good news is, it’s not just you. Recent psychological studies point to the idea that this “fear of success” can be a very real and in some cases debilitating condition. Luckily, there are practices that can help you overcome your fear and confidently achieve the successes that you’ve worked for.

Fear of Success

The feeling of being afraid to succeed is closely related to the more common idea of a fear of failure. In part, this is because the excitement and anticipation surrounding potential success can feel, on a physiological level, a lot like extreme anxiety.

For some people, particularly those with conditions like PTSD or generalized anxiety, the butterflies and sweaty palms that come with scoring an important job interview are akin to the symptoms experienced prior to or during an anxiety attack.

The strong negative associations formed by these physiological symptoms can be enough to convince a person that whatever’s causing the feelings should be avoided.

A fear of success can also manifest in people who were brought up with low self-esteem, or taught to be suspicious of “good” things. For these people, applying for a great job or for a prestigious graduate school might be something that they’d never do because they feel they don’t have a chance of getting the job, anyway. They might believe that the opportunity itself is “too good to be true,” and therefore they shouldn’t try for it because they’ll only end up worse off than they started.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is similar to fear of success. This syndrome manifests more often in people who would probably be considered “successful” by any observer.

Maybe you are successful in your career or in other pursuits, but imposter syndrome is when you don’t feel that way. Perhaps you even feel like a fraud from time to time, as if your most recent promotion wasn’t a well-deserved step up, but a clerical error. Perhaps when you receive praise for a job well done you chalk it up to “people just being nice,” rather than well-deserved congratulations.

First described by Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. and Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D. in the 1970s, imposter syndrome, or the ‘imposter phenomenon’ is widely recognized by psychologists as a specific form of self-doubt, though as of 2017 it is not recognized in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The most obvious feature of Imposter Syndrome is feeling as if you don’t actually possess the skills and training that led to your success, but instead that you are only ‘pretending’ to be an expert. Some sufferers may even worry that they will one day be ‘found out’, and lose their success.

Why Do People Feel This Way?

People who grew up in environments where the need to be successful was very heavily weighted are among the most likely to be afflicted by imposter syndrome. It’s also common among people who tend to be overly critical of themselves, though the research on the syndrome is still fairly new, and what exactly triggers it is not completely understood.

While success is a relative term, Imposter Syndrome often manifests when an individual reaches a point in their academic life or career that would be generally considered successful. For example, students in a graduate or doctorate degree program are often found to exhibit symptoms of imposter syndrome.

High-achieving professionals, like entrepreneurs and executives, tend to experience it as well.  That said, imposter syndrome doesn’t only strike people in very high-ranking positions. If you’ve achieved success on your own terms — like winning a creative writing contest, or making the football team — you might also occasionally feel as if your success was undeserved.

When Imes and Clance first researched the topic, it was thought to only apply to women. However, more recent research strongly suggests that the syndrome is not limited by gender. The syndrome is often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety or depression, though it’s not clear if the relationship is causative or simply correlative.

Are There Solutions?

Current research suggests that the imposter syndrome is quite common, and given that many people are unlikely to report it due to the accompanying fear of being “found out,” there are probably far more cases than scientists are aware of.

Fortunately, one of the easiest ways to mitigate and manage imposter-like feelings is to speak out about them. According to the University of Waterloo’s Center for Teaching Excellence, knowing that Imposter Syndrome is a recognized condition, and being able to put a name to the feelings, is one of the simplest ways those afflicted with the condition can realize that their feelings are normal.

Understanding that a large majority of people feel undeserving of their unique success is also a good thing to keep in mind. Remember that it’s common and normal to feel a little like a ‘fish out of water’ when you first start a new job or school program, but with time and experience, you’ll most likely acclimate to the situation.

The resource also recommends the old adage, ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ — don’t tell yourself that you’re ‘winging it’, or lying your way through a job. Instead, imagine that you’re being proactive and have the confidence to take a chance on something new.

As for fear of success, Susan Babbel, Ph.D., M.F.T. writes at Psychology Today that it may be helpful to try visualizing both recent and past successes, then visualizing an experience that caused you anxiety. By focusing on the difference in feeling between success and trauma, you may be able to become better at recognizing the subtle differences between anxiety or dread, and positive anticipation.

It’s also worth noting that people who have suffered significant traumas should do this exercise under the supervision of a counsellor or psychiatrist.

Regardless, it’s important to know that fear of success is a real and recognized condition, and if you’ve ever experienced it, you’re not alone, and it can be overcome.

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  1. […] Recent psychological studies point to the idea that "fear of success" is very real and even become a debilitating condition. Years ago, I experienced this in my own career and it wasn't until a mentor pointed it out to me I realized I had been subconsciously holding myself back from the success and growth I desired. It usually afflicts someone who grew up in an environment with high expectations. And, while it's historically been more common in women, the condition is rising across both genders. Here's why… […]

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