The Most Cryptic Block to Your Success: Fear of Success

If you were stoking a bonfire, would you douse it with water? Not if you knew that’s what you were doing. Many of us work on building our inspiration, motivation and passion (our fire) and then subconsciously douse it. Or we set a challenging personal or business goal and keep running into a glass wall. Most often, fear of success causes these obstacles; it is probably the most cryptic and prevalent fear that blocks success.

Here are four examples of fear of success:

  1. Sara, a 30-something entrepreneur, said, “I don’t think my family [of origin] will accept, or even love me if I’m wealthy.”
  2. Zoey, a 15-year-old female swimmer, was afraid to swim a senior national qualifying time, saying: “People’s expectations will be so much higher. I don’t want that stress.”
  3. Tom, in high-tech sales, was afraid to have a really great year because, “They’ll raise my goals, and I don’t know if I can sell this much again.”
  4. Hundreds of business executives I’ve talked with recently constantly worry about being successful in their business life and with their families. They see it as an either/or, black/white situation, “Either be successful at work, or be successful with my family.” This used to be almost exclusively a female fear, but now it’s both women and men.

Here’s the setup for fear of success. Success in achieving one of your important goals (your first goal) creates failure for another one of your important goals (your second goal). Thus, either consciously or subconsciously, you sabotage your success in accomplishing your first goal for fear of not being successful in accomplishing your second goal. This is especially true when the second goal is in your subconscious mind -” you aren’t aware, or fully aware, of it.

Let’s review our examples.

  1. Sara, the 30-something entrepreneur who thought her family of origin wouldn’t accept her if she was wealthy: One goal is being wealthy; the other goal is having her family’s love and acceptance. So Sara had a conflict with the belief that she could only either be wealthy or loved and accepted by her family. She resolved this with an imperfect, but effective, strategy. She created wealth but kept the knowledge of it from her family of origin. Thus, she was wealthy and loved and accepted by her family.
  2. Zoey, the 15-year-old swimmer who was afraid to qualify for nationals because she didn’t want the stress of increased expectations: One of Zoey’s goals was to reach senior nationals, which is an incredible accomplishment for a 15 year old because the National and Olympic teams are chosen from the senior national group. Her other goal was to just be a kid -” hang out with friends, have fun and do the stuff that 15-year-old girls do. Zoey was afraid that if she swam too well, she’d have to live and train at the Olympic training center and lose her childhood. She resolved this conflict with some in-depth work that resulted in her deciding to make senior nationals but, even if selected, not join the national Olympic team until she wanted to. She made senior national times and enjoyed her high school years.
  3. Tom, the high-tech salesperson who was afraid a really great year would result in loftier goals: Tom discovered during his high-performance coaching that he had a subconscious fear of future failure; he didn’t know if he could sell that much again. One of his goals was to make a lot of money, and the other goal was to always meet his quota. If he had a really good year, he raised the expectation of how much he’d sell, and he was afraid he’d fail to meet the higher expectation in the subsequent year. Tom solved this by learning to master his fear of failure, allowing him to have his best year ever and be free from fear of failure.
  4. Business executives who constantly worry about being successful in their business and personal lives: One goal is career success, and the other is family success. This doesn’t have to be an either/or, black/white issue. The goal and resolution involve how to be successful at both. I’ve witnessed many solutions to this, and the one that overall greatly benefits everyone is learning to be completely present, in the now, wherever you are -” being more focused and present at work and with your loved ones.

Overcome fear of success. Fear of success results in anxiety, and underperformance. Here’s a good general approach to gaining control of the self-sabotage of fear of success: When you view a situation as an either/or conflict in which you can successfully accomplish one goal but need to fail at another to do so:

  1. Slow down and fully commit to success in accomplishing both goals.
  2. Ask for input from your most respected friends and colleagues to stimulate your innovative thinking.
  3. Let go of either/or and focus on being successful at your first goal and your second goal.

The solution is usually not obvious and takes creativity and a mindfulness to find. Don’t give up! Keep committed to both goals; solutions evolve. Leaders can be highly effective in all dimensions of life: business, personal and spiritual.

(Names in stories have been changed to honor client confidentiality.)

For 26 years, Dr. TC North has accelerated executives, entrepreneurs and sales professionals in attaining their visions and dreams. He is a high-performance executive coach and speaker worldwide. He has also mentally coached a professional sports team, Olympic teams and other world-class athletes in the art of creating thoughts and emotions that maximize success. To learn more, visit, or [email protected].