Fear of Success: The Psychology of Self-Sabotage

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Now Habit" by Neil A. Fiore. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is the fear of success a thing? How does fear of success cause people to self-sabotage?

The possibility of achieving significant success triggers irrational fear in many people. As they experience greater success and joy, they begin to unconsciously self-sabotage to bring themselves back to a level that they are used to.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of the fear of success.

Fear of Success

Whereas perfectionism makes us avoid working because we fear failure, Fiore says that it’s also possible to procrastinate because we fear success. Fear of success can occur for several reasons:

1) We fear that we’ll alienate our friends, colleagues, or family if we outperform them. For example, a straight-A student might deliberately reduce the effort she puts into her schoolwork for fear that her friends will brand her a “nerd” or “teacher’s pet.”

2) We’re uneasy about the major life changes that sometimes come with success. For example, a successful job search might mean moving to a new place, adapting to a new social environment, and learning a new set of skills and responsibilities.

3) We fear that succeeding will raise other people’s expectations until we hit the point where we’re guaranteed to disappoint them. For example, our hypothetical student might not want to earn straight As because she suspects that earning them once will make her parents and teachers expect her to earn them every semester.

(Shortform note: Fiore largely describes the fear of success as a conscious phenomenon. However, other experts warn that we can also harbor such fears unconsciously and express them in subtle ways. In other words, it’s possible that many people struggle with such fears without ever realizing it.)

The Psychology of Fear of Success

In addition to the reasons Fiore gives, experts speculate that there are even more reasons why we might fear success:

1) Highly qualified people sometimes suffer from impostor syndrome—the belief that you’ve achieved your job or other position through luck and that you’ll inevitably be revealed to be a fraud. If you experience impostor syndrome, you may fear that further successes only increase your risk of exposure.

2) Women in particular might fear that they’ll face social backlash for defying traditional gender roles if they succeed at work (or other traditionally male domains). 

3) We may have been taught as children not to get too full of ourselves, which can lead to holding ourselves back to avoid future criticism.

4) We might be uncomfortable with the idea of attracting attention through our successes and therefore hold back in order to avoid the spotlight. Whatever the cause, fear of success is further complicated by the fact that you might be embarrassed to admit that you suffer from this fear. Many societies glorify success, so it can be easy to feel like there’s something wrong with you if you’re ambivalent about the idea of achievement.
Fear of Success: The Psychology of Self-Sabotage

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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