Some people struggle for years to get ahead, yet they just never seem to make much progress. It may be that at least some of these individuals just don’t have the resources to turn their dreams into reality, but this certainly isn’t the case for all of them. There are also plenty of examples of talented people who make it right to the edge of achieving their goal, yet things somehow get messed up – in many of these cases, the real cause of lack of progress is fear of success.
Can People Really Fear Success?
The idea that people might fear failure is easy to grasp. Failing can feel painful due to negative consequences, and it can also mean a bit of an ego-bashing. It is sort of understandable that there are people who prefer to stay in their comfort zone because they fear the suffering associated with failing. The claim that fear of success can also trap people in their comfort zone can be harder to accept – why would anyone fear success?
The theory that some people fail to achieve due to fear of success gained recognition in the 1970s because of the work of a psychologist named Matina Horne. She initially limited her research to women in the workforce, but it soon became obvious that it was something that affected men too. Horne found the causes of this fear of success shared many similarities with the fear of failure.
Earlier work by the psychologist Abraham Maslow talks about the Jonah Complex. He believed that all humans had incredible potential, but that most of them fail to blossom because they fear their own greatness – they may feel embarrassed by the idea that they even have this potential. Maslow called this phenomenon the Jonah Complex after the Biblical story about a man who refused to follow his destiny out of fear. He summed up the situation with the words:
“We fear to know the fearsome and unsavory aspects of ourselves, but we fear even more to know the godlike in ourselves.”
Why People Fear Success
If people don’t feel deserving of success, they may worry about achievement turning them into a fraud. There is this myth that high-achievers are somehow superhuman, and those who see themselves as ‘just normal’ may feel unworthy of joining this group. Another fear may be that achieving greatness is going to mean ‘selling out’ on ideals and beliefs.
With great success comes additional stress and new responsibilities. The person who fears success may worry that they will not be able to cope. It is going to mean leaving their current comfort zone, and this isn’t always such an appealing idea. Shy people may worry about having to put up with being the center of attention. The benefit of always dreaming about success in the future is that it doesn’t have to involve any discomfort or readjustment today.
Holding onto friends can be difficult when climbing the ladder of success. Some of these people are going may feel threatened because it reminds them of their own lack of progress – this reaction is sometimes referred to as ‘tall poppy syndrome’. The risk of losing friendships can be a real worry for some people, and it may be what is keeping them back from living up to their potential.
How Might Fear Of Success Be Holding You Back?
The scariest thing about fear of success is that those who are dealing with are usually completely unaware of this handicap. Such individuals may be blaming their inability to move forward in life on bad luck, bad genes, or a bad economy. These people may feel desperate for success on one level, but the fear of success means they are unconsciously sabotaging their own efforts.
One of the most common way that fear of success influences behavior is procrastination. The person wants to be successful at some point in the future, but feels reluctant about doing the necessary work to make this happen today. Motivational speaker Denis Waitley sums up the situation well when he says:
“Procrastination is the fear of success. People procrastinate because they are afraid of the success that they know will result if they move ahead now. Because success is heavy, carries a responsibility with it, it is much easier to procrastinate and live on the ‘someday I’ll’ philosophy.”
Another way that people suffer due to this fear is that they fail to make the most of their opportunities in life. As soon as there is chance to turn their dream into a reality, the person becomes overwhelmed by self-doubt and a feeling of unworthiness. The individual may be able to come up with rational justifications for not making the most of the opportunity (e.g. its’ the wrong time), but often the real reason is fear.
Self-sabotage can be the most distressing symptom of fear of success. An example of this might be the person who decided to go out and get drunk the night before an important meeting. It can also involve making silly mistakes or saying the wrong thing.
How To Eliminate The Fear Of Success
“The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear.”
The hardest part of overcoming the fear of success is identifying it in the first place. This is why it is so important to look out for signs of self-sabotage when trying to reach a goal. Once this tendency has been identified, it is then just a matter of uprooting the cause of it. The more this fear is brought out into the open, the less damage it can do.
The key to overcoming feelings of unworthiness is to develop self-compassion, and to believe that it is the job of every human to achieve their potential. People are like beautiful sunflowers and each of them has the ability to blossom and make the world a more beautiful place. It is also important to understand that high-achievers are just normal people, with flaws and foibles, who did what was necessary to achieve their goals – it is not so much about who they are, but what they have done.
When fear of success is due to an unwillingness to put up with the discomfort of change, the answer is to understand that things are going to change anyway. The irony is that it is usually when people remain in their comfort zone that they suffer the most discomfort – all those regrets and thoughts about how things could have been. As Abraham Maslow once said:
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
People who hold back from reaching their potential due to fear of loss friendships are selling themselves short. It is a type of martyrdom that doesn’t ultimately benefit anyone because it means living a lie. The reality is that most friendships are going to survive this type of adjustment, and the ones that don’t were probably very shallow to begin with. People who begrudge the success of their friends don’t really deserve to be called friends.
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