Everybody wants to be successful, right? Would you think fearing success is bizarre? There are quite a few people who are successphobic (my word), either because they fear success or have an inability to cross the finish line. The person who fears success has an internal conflict - one part of him wants success and the other fears success. Most successphobics choose the latter.
“The greatest barrier to success is the fear of success.”
Society and the popular press talk extensively about the love for success and the fear of failure. But, they talk little about the fear of success. But, just because you don’t talk about negative things does not mean that they don’t exist or they will go away. The fear of success is a real thing for many people, and I suspect most do not even realize they have it. It is a person’s inability to comfortably handle achievement. I suspect it is an unconscious fear. A person who fears success is very much like a person who fears failure – both of them prevent the attainment of their goals. The dictionary does have a name for it – achievemephobia – but successphobia is simply and clear. I suspect that people in all walks of life and levels of achievement have successphobia. It does not discriminate between men and women, the CEO and the janitor, or the poor and the rich. Could successphobia be the reason you are not reaching the level of success you believe you should achieve?
What do people with successphobia do?
- They have a lower success thermostat than the goals they consciously aspire to. In life, you achieve what you believe you will achieve. It is like a thermostat you have set for yourself. If you believe you will become a Vice President, your subconscious mind helps you make your ‘story’ true. Unless you change your story, changing the reality of your life will be very difficult (see the workbook by Dr. David Krueger at the end of this article on changing your story).
- They avoid the final step to success (they don’t ‘close’ and finish, instead ‘choke’). They stray to irrelevant tasks or thoughts that will prevent them from achieving success.
- They hate their current circumstances but believe that ‘succeeding’ is ‘worse’.
- They have self-doubt when they are about to achieve something. They underrate themselves and overrate their opponents (or the difficulty of the task).
- They ‘choke’ when they ought to be crossing the finish line. According to neuropsychologists, these people get anxious when they are about to win and start scrutinizing actions that are best performed (and they usually perform) automatically. This leads to emotional, logical and physical mistakes that produce a bad outcome. A great example of a ‘choker’ is the famous golfer Greg Norman, who in 1996 was up by 6 strokes in the Master’s tournament and ended up losing to Nick Faldo.
- They perform poorly under pressure. Everybody changes under pressure but success-phobic people do particularly poorly under pressure. Not all people who do poorly under pressure are success-phobic but success-phobic people are poor performers under pressure.
- They have high levels of cortisol and adrenaline (released by their brains) when under pressure. While this happens to almost everybody, it is said to be higher for the successphobic people. This leads to reduced fine motor skills, poor coordination and unclear thinking. Their ‘automatic’ behavior that serves them well under normal circumstances fails them when they are close to achieving success
- They could have a panic attack when they get close to achieving their goals because they fear success. In other words, they get uncomfortable as they get close to succeeding at whatever they are doing.
- They tend to distract themselves when the time comes to act on their plan for success or when they get close to the success. Symptoms could be self-destructive behaviors like procrastination, recreation or destroying key relationships that could derail their road to success.
- They abandon successful ventures or derail actions that could have resulted in success. If you are doing something that is against your nature or what would be considered common sense or natural, take a second look. Could you be having achievemephobia?
- They downplay successes or believe (in their own mind) that the success they achieved was a fluke.
- They often say, “If it was mean to be,..” or “The perfect (job, person, opportunity) will come along.” They may also say, “I don’t need to speak about my strengths and abilities. They will figure it out.”
- They may be ambitious but do not set goals (and avoid setting goals). They claim to have too many interests or too many goals and therefore don’t set any goal.
- They do not set goals – they are afraid that seeking ‘lofty goals’ would be unnatural for them and they may perhaps achieve the added success they dread.
- They do not seek or like change, instead preferring tasks that keep them busy. They often spend more time planning for success than on achieving it.
- They cannot handle success. That could be because of the inability to handle the fame, wealth and responsibility success brings. I suspect that is one of the biggest reasons why people who buy lottery tickets (aspiring to wealth and dreaming of what it could do for them) and end up winning the jackpot (achieving ‘success’ they dreamed of) lose their money within a couple of years.
- They tend to be introverted. They avoid a lot of social contact and the limelight.
- They tend to have the same tight circle of friends from a young age or for a long time. Generally, if the person succeeds, they will have to ‘leave their friends behind’, which they do not want to do. Successful people tend to hang out with people at their level of success or greater level of success. They don’t necessarily abandon old friends but constantly make new ones. Who do you spend the bulk of your time with?
- They tend to dream about what success would look like and want to avoid the work and responsibilities that come with success. For example, if you earned $10million, you will be approached by friends and family that you did not even know you had asking for ‘help’. You don’t want to deal with that. So, you ‘decide’ to not make $10million in the first place. Same goes for seeking a promotion if the new position will require extra hours and weekend work.
- They had parents who told them that whatever they achieved is OK. While that may seem innocuous and benign, the parents indirectly told them not to aim high. The tendency to avoid aiming high becomes part of the person’s ‘wiring’.
- They were told in their formative years that “You will not succeed” or “You will amount to nothing”. As the neuropsychologist Dr. David Krueger says, those statements become part of the story you tell (remind) yourself regularly. So, when you have an opportunity to be successful, it will make your story untrue. You need to change your story in order to create a new reality (see the workbook by Dr. David Krueger at the end of this article on changing your story).
- They rationalize their successphobia by labeling it as contentment. If you are doubtful about your situation, look at how many of the list above you have. Or, take the quiz on our website.
How to overcome the Fear of Success
- First, determine if you have it. Take this quiz. It is not a formal diagnosis but could shed light on your situation.
- Practice regular breathing exercises and relaxation techniques.
- Practice mindfulness that trains you to only stay in the present moment. That could prevent you from getting overwhelmed.
- Develop ‘automatic’ behavior through repetition to prevent you from getting thrown off the rails. In other words, the less you think with your conscious mind the better you will perform and get across the finish line.
- Start a journal and understand your behaviors to see if your actions are ‘successphobic’ ones. Refer to the list above or check out the books listed at the end of this article. Check back on this article periodically. We will add solutions and resources as we find them.
- Read books on the various symptoms associated with the reasons for achievemephobia. Here are a few that you can get started with from Amazon:
- Successful Life Story Transformations: Using the ROADMAP System to Change Mind, Brain, and Behavior by Dr. David Krueger MD
- The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund Bourne
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D Burns
- Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger PhD
- Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook by Martin Anthony
- Dr. David Krueger has a CD and workbook that can help you understand your existing story and craft new empowering ones that could lead you to success.
Ram V. Iyer is the President of the Business Thinking Institute in Princeton. He is on a quest to understand and share ways people can be more successful in business and life. If you are looking for practical help on business success, check out his blog at www.businessthinking.com/knowledge/blog.