Is Fear of Success Real?

I was talking with my husband Louie last night and the topic of fear of success came up.

Often we hear people say they are afraid to fail and that’s why they don’t take the steps they know they need to take. They don’t pick up the phone and call a prospect. They don’t get out there and talk about their business and make offers to people. They procrastinate all sorts of action steps because if they never take the step, the illusion of success is still there, and they don’t actually have to face the reality that they may not be successful. It’s a crazy holding pattern to say the least.

But what about the fear of success?

It sounds crazy right? We’re all in business because we want to be successful. We want to serve people. We want to make a difference in the world. And yes, we want to make money. All things we quantity as “success.” So why in the world would we stop ourselves with the excuse “I’m afraid of success” when success is the goal?

I’ve heard this excuse thrown around so often, that I don’t think I ever really gave it much thought.

On the surface it sounds plausible. Yet last night when Louie shared it during our discussion, I heard it differently. Maybe because I heard it within an entire conversation about what stops people from actually taking the action they know they need to take to succeed.

I realized that it is indeed fear that stops most people.

But I don’t believe it is actually fear of success. That has become a very acceptable excuse. The real fear is much more specific. It’s fear about doing something that will make them uncomfortable (e.g. actually making an offer to a prospect – that’s “selling” and selling feels yucky for many people).

It’s fear and apprehension about doing something they’ve never done before, and what might happen. And I believe we are a lot more afraid of rejection than we are of success. What if the person I make the offer to says no?  What if the action I take doesn’t yield the results I’m hoping for? What does that say about me? Does that mean I’m a failure?

And just plain fear of stepping into the unknown. As unhappy or unsuccessful as we may currently be, it is a known place. And there is a strange comfort in the “known.”  So, very often we subconsciously keep ourselves there.

So to answer the question that prompted this post:  Is Fear of Success Real?

I think not. I think it has become a socially acceptable excuse. And I think when we find ourselves using this excuse, we need to ask ourselves what we are REALLY afraid of. My guess is it’s much smaller and more specific than fear of success. I’d be willing to bet it’s fear about taking the next specific step because it’s something we’ve never done before, or we’re worried about rejection, or things not going the way we want.

The good news is, when you get rid of the socially acceptable excuse, and you drill down to what the fear is really about, you are then in a position to do something about it. You can make the choice to face the fear head on and move through it, because you know what IT is. Compare that to what you’re supposed to do with “fear of success.”

Truth be told, that is the real difference between successful people and those who are not successful. It’s not that successful people don’t have fears. It’s just that they’re willing to take the action anyway.


About Debbie

Debbie worked in marketing for 32 years and ran a successful coaching and consulting business for 19. Now she helps people find greater happiness and success by learning how to Follow Inspiration.

10 comments on “Is Fear of Success Real?

  1. When I talk about my fear of success (I’ve had it all my life and it’s held me back enormously until recent years) what I’m really talking about is succeeding, and then *failing* to maintain the success.

    The old tape in my head was “I can write one good business book, but then people will expect me to write a *better* business book; I can do a great presentation at this event, and then, I can’t top it at the next one.”

    I’m good now, eager for both success *and* failure, ’cause failure is where you learn, but I understand what people mean when they talk about ‘fear of success’, if, in fact, they’re using it like I did.

    But I’ve also heard people claim ‘fear of success’ and thought, if you’re not even moving, you don’t have to worry about *that*, pal.

  2. I just read a great article about the knowing / doing gap. The example used was why do only 1 in 7 people faced with death if they don’t change their health habits actually make the changes? It is fear, but maybe the fear of the consequences of change. What will happen to me if I am successful and change? Will my friends still like me, will people expect more from me, what will I do next? The fear is real, but maybe we have another hidden agenda that we may be unaware of, that keeps us from truly being successful.

  3. Hi Debbie:

    Excellent points. I actually posted an Anne Lamott quote about this last week on my Facebook Fan Page: “Do uncomfortable things frequently; it’s weightlifting for life.” (I might be paraphrasing a word or two.) My client said the same thing this morning; she has a fear of failure and success. It’s uncomfortable to feel your feelings instead of eating. It’s more comfortable in the short run to eat that to deal with why you are stuffing your feelings. So how do you suggest clients get to the point of taking action?



  4. Hi Debbie,
    I think you are quite right about drilling down to what the fear is really about and removing it.

    I am using a medium called ‘matrix reimprinting’
    to remove my fears or blockages one by one. It is amazing how many I’ve accumulated over the years.

    I think you’re spot on when you talk about being out of your comfort zone and the fear of rejection is something I’m going to start dealing with right away.
    Cheers Debbie for bringing this up.

    Kind Regards

  5. Wow, what a great conversation we have started! Thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

    Joel – I do get what you mean by success setting a standard that you may fear you can’t uphold. I’m glad to hear you’ve transcended that and are now embracing your “failures” as well as successes. You are so right – we do learn so much more from our failures. I hate to even call them failures for that reason.

    Shayla – Great points. Once again it’s about going deeper into the fear to find out what it’s really about. On the surface it appears to be success, but as you point out, it could really be about something related to that success and not the success itself.

    Jennifer – I LOVE that quote about “weightlifting for life”! As far as your question about how to get clients into action, it’s about looking at what they say they want to accomplish, identifying the steps necessary to get there, and then supporting them with the knowledge and resources and courage to take those steps. Usually we fear what we are unprepared for, or have never done before. If we can prepare, and have someone (a coach, accountability partner, or mastermind group) there to support us as we take actions we are uncomfortable with, then most people can and do take action. The cool part is, most often, AFTER they take the action, the reaction is “that wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be in my mind” … and you know what, IT NEVER IS!

    Susan – congratulations on addressing your fears head on, and one by one!

  6. Hi, Debbie – great post!

    I think you’re right, that it’s the real world fears that hold us back…the fear of rejection, etc. As you know, what I am all about is helping people connect so completely to their bigger self, that can feel the fear and do things anyway. Connect to that self that knows who they REALLY are, and what they are REALLY capable of.

    As I work with those bigger selves, I’ve developed an image of what fear is: I see fear as the picket fence around our comfort zone, our familiar territory.

    In this picture, fear is useful – it marks the places where you are stretching. And once you go outside that picket fence, the fear retreats. The yard gets bigger, and it can never be so small again.

    And – there’s only an absence of fear when you stop growing, exploring, and trying new things. I say, reach for the fear!!

  7. Hi Debbie,

    What a wonderful post! I read it earlier today and I’m still pondering late this evening. I’m one of those who’ve said in the past that I fear success and now I realize it’s really a fear of rejection, a fear of exposing myself, a fear of stepping outside of my comfort zone. Scout, I love the image of the picket fence. I just need to open the gate and walk thru it, easy enough! I never thought of no fear equalling no growth another great nugget. Thanks Debbie & Scout

  8. Scout – thanks so much for sharing. I too love your image of the picket fence, and Michi’s comment about just opening the gate and walking through it – it really can be that easy, can’t it?

    As far as fear of rejection – I have a mentor that put it this way: if you know you need to talk to 5 people to get one yes, and your sale when you make it is worth $1000 (you can fill in your own numbers here), then for each person who says no, you just earned $200. Each rejection just means you’re that much closer to a yes, and that’s a GOOD thing.

    As we all know, not everyone is right or ready to work with us. We are making an assumption when we believe every person we talk to should become a client or say yes to our offer. They may not be in the right place, or it just may not be a good fit for them now, or ever. That’s okay. When we stand strong in who we are, and what we are here to do, those who are ready to work with us will be attracted and they will say yes.

    And Lisa, “sales” that way NEVER feels yucky, because it’s never about convincing someone to buy. It’s about sharing an opportunity and helping them discover if it’s the right opportunity for THEM at THIS TIME.

    Thanks everyone for contributing to this wonderful conversation!

  9. “I see fear as the picket fence around our comfort zone, our familiar territory.” Oh, I love this image and concept! Reminiscent of an exercise that I was led through at a recent seminar on ‘sales from the heart’ where we stood behind our chairs to indicate the prison we put ourselves in, embodied our worst fears around stepping out in business, then moved to the front of the chair when we were ready to embody living from its opposite. Very powerful to experience with imagery or movement the act of stepping out past our comfort/fear zone. Thanks Debbie, I’m new to your list and loving what I’m reading so far!

  10. Sharon,

    My good friend Scout Wilkins refers to fear as the picket fence also – it’s a great analogy. Thanks for sharing about the exercise you did – it sounds powerful. And welcome to my list, it’s so great to have you here!


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