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Are You Secretly More Afraid of Success Than Failure?

Topics: Career Advice

There are enough obstacles to overcome at work without getting in your own way. But, when you don’t realize that you’re afraid of success, that’s exactly what happens.

It’s not hard to understand why someone might fear failure, especially at the start of their career. But, there’s another fear that holds a lot of folks back at work – the fear of success. And, it’s just as debilitating as any other career obstacle. If left unchecked, this fear can have a significant negative impact your professional life and your career trajectory.

Signs you’re afraid of success: 

afraid of success

The symptoms of a fear of success can be subtle. Often, even the individual who harbors them is unaware. But, you can’t change what you don’t recognize. If you’re afraid of success, understanding the reality of the situation is an essential first step. Here are some signs to watch out for:

1. You’ve learned to blend in

Your parents weren’t the only people who raised you and taught you about the world. Extended family members, friends, teachers and even society at large played a role, too.

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At some point in their early life, many people internalize the message that it isn’t good to stand out. They learn that being a good person means going with the flow. Perhaps you were taught at home, or at school, or just by living in the world, that one should “go along to get along.”

There’s certainly a whole lot to be said for being a kind person and prioritizing getting along well with others at work. But, that doesn’t mean that you should be afraid to have unique ideas and be an individual. As actor Jim Carrey warned during a 2014 college commencement speech, a need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. If you’re always trying to blend in, you might never be able to be fully and truly yourself.

If you notice some of these thought processes or tendencies in yourself, it could be a sign that you’re afraid of success. Question what you were taught about standing out and how you integrated those messages. Then, consider letting go of what isn’t working for you.

2. A successful future feels frightening and hard to imagine

parents don't approve

Sometimes, failure can actually be a lot easier to wrap your head around conceptually than the reality of success. Moving into an uncertain future can seem scarier than staying put.

At Inc, author James Sudakow explained:

When I left my comfortable corporate Vice President job to start my own company, I experienced fear of failure and success. When I asked myself, “What if I fail?” I found that my answer was easy and almost re-assuring. I could just go back to big corporate America.

I had much more anxiety when I asked myself, “What if I actually pull this off?”

Why? Everything would be different, and I wouldn’t even really know the ways things would be different right away. It would be uncharted territory with limited visibility.

A successful future might feel frightening and hard to imagine when compared with your current reality. But, allowing this fear to hold you back can be detrimental. So, trust that you’ll be able to adjust and adapt to whatever changes come your way as a result of your future success. And try not to get too overwhelmed by the big picture. Just take it one step — and one day — at a time.

3. You *Really* Want to Stay in Your comfort zone

It’s understandable to want to avoid the feelings that go along with stepping out of your comfort zone. It can be, well, pretty uncomfortable. But, if you notice that you’ll do just about anything to avoid being put into new and challenging situations at work, you’re probably holding yourself back professionally. And, you may be wrestling with a larger fear of success.

The thing is, it’s impossible to be successful professionally without taking risks and without being stretched and challenged. Just remember, there’s a big difference between having a wonderful day at work and having an easy one.

Working at a job that’s simple and relatively challenge-free might be secure and relaxing in some ways, but it doesn’t push you to realize the full depth and breadth of your potential. To do that, you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. If you aren’t, it could be a sign that a fear of success is working against you without you even knowing it.

4. You worry that success will change you

afraid of success
Vince Fleming/Unsplash

Some folks have a complex relationship with the idea of success.

Maybe you work in a creative field, and you equate more money or a better title with certain values and ethics that don’t appeal to you. Perhaps you worry you’d be selling out if you stepped into a more prosperous professional reality. Or, maybe you’re concerned about how success could change you in general. You worry that your coworkers and clients, and even your friends and your family, will see you differently if you earn more. You may be concerned that they won’t treat you the same way that they do now. Or, perhaps you worry that you’d act differently toward them.

It’s important to keep in mind that success doesn’t have to change who you are. In fact, it won’t fundamentally make you into a different person. Just because you develop new skills, and maybe even different aspects of your personality, doesn’t mean that you’ll turn into someone you don’t like.

You can still be the same kind and generous person you’ve always been. You’ll just have a richer and more satisfying career. In the end, that should help to make you feel happier and more enthusiastic about work and life in general. As long as you don’t let the new power go to your head, your success will have a positive effect on those around you.

5. You literally turn down opportunities

difficult conversations
julie514/Getty Images

Have you ever turned down a promotion? If so, you aren’t alone. And, there are actually some really good reasons to say no to moving up at work. If the timing isn’t right, or if you aren’t at all interested in the job, there’s no sense in taking it. However, if you’ve ever turned down a job offer because you didn’t think you could handle it, you might be afraid of success.

If you’ve ever opted out of a promotion, do some hard thinking about what made you shy away. If your main reason was that you didn’t believe in yourself, you might want to pause and reconsider the next time you have an opportunity to advance. It’s normal to feel nervous and even a little insecure when starting a new job. But, you shouldn’t let those kinds of fears hold you back.

6. You make a lot of excuses

Do you make excuses when something doesn’t go the way you were hoping it would at work? If you make an error, do you learn from it, or do you blame someone or something else for the mistake?

Self-sabotaging behaviors at work can be an indication that you’re harboring a fear of success. When something doesn’t go your way, you should try to grow as a result of the imperfection. Someone who hangs their head and beats themselves up for the error is working in the opposite direction. When you refuse to learn from your mistakes, it’s pretty tough to be successful.

Clinging to excuses rather than picking yourself up and moving forward holds you back professionally. Maybe it feels more comfortable, more familiar, to feel defeated than it would to maintain a positive attitude and grow as a result of errors. If this idea resonates with you, it could be an indication that you’re afraid of success.

7. You’re afraid to put in the work

Michael Rosner-Hyman/Unsplash

If you aren’t careful, labeling yourself as having a fear of success could just turn into another excuse for not moving forward. At the end of the day, you’re responsible for your actions and your professional decisions. And, the only way to really know what you’re capable of achieving is to try your best and work hard.

This is easier said than done.

Putting in a tremendous amount of effort on a consistent basis is no small accomplishment. All kinds of things can get in your way, self-doubt included. So, be careful not to attach too much to the idea that you’re afraid of success. Maybe, if you’re really honest with yourself, you’re actually just afraid to put in the hard work.

It takes time, diligence, sacrifice and more than a little patience to move up the ranks professionally. It requires hard work, consistency and dedication on your part. If you find yourself shying away from practicing those virtues, ask yourself this — are you afraid of success or are you really just afraid of a little hard work? Remember, you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.

The truth is that it’d be great to enjoy your job more, earn the respect of others and bring home a higher salary, right? So, don’t allow a fear of success, or a fear of hard work, to stop you from finding out what you’re really capable of achieving.

Ready to risk becoming a success in a brand-new job? Find out how much your skills are worth in today’s job market. Take the PayScale Salary Survey and get your free salary report today.

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