Fear of success may sound like an unlikely barrier for motivated individuals who are poised to grow personally and professionally, but it’s actually incredibly common. Unfortunately, it can also be incredibly limiting. Fear of success may not be something that we’re always consciously aware of, but it can underlie and sabotage our efforts as we seek to make progress in all areas of our life.
Self-doubt is common (i.e. fear of failure)—even among the most successful individuals—and a healthy amount of it can often drive us to work harder to succeed. But when self-doubt becomes unhealthy it can begin to pose a real barrier to our individual and professional growth. Here are some ways that you can begin to recognize where fear of success could be holding your agency back, and how you can begin to face those fears.
What exactly is “fear of success?”
In order to move past your fear, it’s important for you to understand it and make peace with it. According to Psychology Today, fear of success activates certain areas of the brain closely associated with anxiety and even trauma. When you’re heading into a meeting with an important client, the excitement and anxiety can feel so overwhelming that you may actually perceive it as a threat on a subconscious level. If you’re experiencing your next big presentation as a threat, it makes sense that you would want to escape as soon as possible.
How does fear of success limit our agency?
According to verywellmind.com, the flood of hormones and other symptoms of acute stress, like an increased heartbeat and sweat production are all present when we sense a threat… does that sound like something you might experience when approaching your next big client? Feeling threatened is incredibly uncomfortable, and can trigger a “fight or flight” response. If you’re in the habit of “fleeing” discomfort, you may well unintentionally harm your chances of working with this client again. That doesn’t mean you’ll go running from the conference room, but it does mean you could let your anxiety get the best of you during the presentation. You might make little mistakes you wouldn’t have made under less pressure. Or your anxiety could lead the client to believe that you lack confidence in your own abilities, which could influence their decision when it comes to working with you in the future.
Another way we tend to undermine our own success is by imagining we don’t deserve it. Impostor syndrome is common among individuals with perfectionist tendencies, according to Time.com, which means that high achievers and successful individuals are actually more likely to experience it. Impostor syndrome can manifest when we imagine we don’t deserve that dream client, or have only accidentally made it to the top of our field through sheer luck.
Individuals with impostor syndrome can self-sabotage in order to avoid being “figured out.” We also tend to discount our successes and highlight our failures, which is a form of confirmation bias, where we use our failures as proof that we are undeserving, and ignore evidence that we are successful. So you might subconsciously use that high stakes meeting you were nervous during to confirm the bias that you didn’t deserve the client in the first place.
How do we overcome fear of success?
Our minds are not static, which means our thought patterns and our ideas about ourselves can be realigned. It simply takes practice in order to begin to change our approach to important opportunities. Here are just some examples of how you can begin to tackle your fears using the example of business development opportunities:
1. Be Open
Once you’ve recognized where fear of success may be holding you back, it becomes easier to notice and address. When you become aware of your anxiety around a big opportunity, it can help to admit to yourself that you are feeling discomfort, rather than trying to suppress it. Acknowledge the anxiety and then take action to go in the opposite direction. It can be helpful to be open about your anxiety with a friend or loved one as well so that you can receive grounding feedback.
2. Use reframing and focus on the positive
Positive reframes can be used to remind yourself that an anxiety producing situation is an opportunity. Practice telling yourself that you are excited about pitching to a prospective client or having an important meeting, because of all the positive rewards. Instead of dwelling in the fear, see it and move past it, so you can start focusing on all the positive attributes of success.
There’s a reason politicians hold mock-debates before the real deal. This doesn’t mean you need to build yourself a fake conference room and review your pitch until you sound over-rehearsed and robotic—it simply means that you can practice the scenario having a positive outcome in your mind, so that you’re not so focused on the negative. Having a template in your mind of a pitch going well makes it more likely that you can replicate that positive outcome when it comes to the real deal.
If you’re tired of letting your fear of success hold you back, let’s talk. As an agency transformation coach, I help other creative leaders reach their greatest potential and overcome obstacles in their path.