It might seem ridiculous.
You want success. You really do. But you’re afraid of it. Hovering between success and failure, you’re stuck.
You’re not alone. And being afraid of success is perfectly natural.
Why We Can Be Afraid of Success
Fear of failure is easier to understand.
As people, we’re often loss adversive. In their book Sway, Rom and Ori Brafman write about just how loss averse we can be: we don’t want to lose what we have, whether that’s a position at work or the respect of others. For example, we’ll often do more to avoid losing money than we will to gain. This is the core of Gambler’s Fallacy.
Humans are amazing survival machines. We’ve developed all kinds of little mechanisms in this wonderful mind of ours to keep us surviving in this world where, at any moment, a sabertoothed Toyota can come rushing out of the bushes at you.
Being loss averse is one of those little ways we’ve stayed alive, and fear is just our internal compass that helps keep us safe.
Too safe, sometimes.
It’s not success itself we’re scared of. If it’s something we want, there’s no reason to be afraid of it. What we’re afraid of, is what surrounds success.
The Loss of Success
What do we have to lose when we’re successful? Plenty, possibly.
Gaining a promotion could mean relocating to a new city. It could mean losing relationships with coworkers who you’re now working above. It could also mean you lose a position you love.
Even just wanting to improve yourself whether it’s through personal or growth or something like wanting to lose weight can shift your relationships with your friends and loved ones.
For example, let’s say you have a group of friends you see regularly. You and your friends are stuck in life. They want better, but aren’t doing anything toward it.
One day, you decide to change that. You start growing by leaps and bounds, but they don’t. Some of them might be supportive, but they might become jealous of you as well. You didn’t set out intending to, but you outgrow them and soon you no longer see them as much as you used to, and then maybe not at all.
The truth of it is every change we make in our lives causes us to lose something. It could be relationship. It might be a way of living if you’re leaving behind old habits and old ways of thinking.
Even if we’re leaving behind things that no longer benefit us, it can be tough! Those old things are comfortable to us, and when we start to leave them fear can come up to hold us back.
Again, it’s just the way our minds work to keep us alive.
The Uncertainty of Success
Another thing that keeps us alive is avoiding uncertainty. We like to be sure of our situations, to know where we stand. David Rock writes about this in his book, Your Brain at Work: our brains treat uncertainty as a threat to our survival, while increases to certainty activate our brain’s reward centers.
One day I was talking to my girlfriend about being afraid of success. She told me, “You’re not afraid of success. You just don’t know what that looks like.”
And she was right. I didn’t know what it looked liked.
That’s the thing with success. Whatever success means to you: we don’t know what it will look like if we achieve it.
We might know what part of it looks like, sure, but it’s impossible to know all of the details. What if you did become a best-selling author? A CEO? What if you did find the partner of your dreams?
This is really a fear of the unknown that can go along with success.
Overcoming Fear of Loss and Uncertainty
Fear is neither good or bad. It’s something we’re hardwired to experience – we can’t destroy it or completely leave it behind, but we can change our relationship to it.
And once we know what’s causing it, we can take a closer look at it.
If you feel you might be afraid of success, answer these two questions:
1. By succeeding, what might you be afraid of losing?
2. If you succeed, what details are you missing from the picture that might be worrying you?
If you’re afraid of a loss, ask yourself: Is it something you have to give up? Is it possible to keep it, but have less of it? And is it something you actually mind losing? Will the benefits of success outweigh the loss?
And if it’s uncertainty that frightens you, fill in and learn as many details as you can to make yourself more certain. Uncertainty is something we have to live with, and like fear, we change our relationship with it.
Entrepreneur Peter Sage said,
“The most defining characteristic of a successful person is their ability to handle uncertainty.”
Recognize your fear. Your fear of loss. Your fear of the unknown. And find a way forward.
Your fear might feel insurmountable to get past in the moment, but when you do and look back, you might be surprised to find it wasn’t very big after all.