Success Anxiety is Real

success anxiety

The word “success” is most commonly linked to positive feelings and motivation. Most people strive for success in various aspects of their lives, including academic success, occupational success, social success, relationship success, and parenting success. 

The list of potential areas for success can go on and on, but the take home message is that individuals generally strive to be successful overall. One would rarely think that the word “success” could be associated with negativity or worry. However, for some individuals, success is intricately linked with anxiety and fearfulness.

It is interesting to imagine a person who fears getting the very things that they (and most other people) desire. Who would fear moving up the ranks of their job and making more money? Who would be scared about working hard and filling their saving accounts? Who would be timid about doing so well academically that they are accepted to the college of their choice? The fact of the matter is that there are various reasons why a person may become fearful of success.

Success often carries a large responsibility with it, as it tends to elevate the expectations of others. An academically gifted student may be expected to do well on exams. An athlete who has won prior championships may be expected to play well in every game. A person who has achieved financial success and security may be expected to always give solid financial advice. 

These types of expectations may be too much for some people to handle, triggering a significant amount of distress and anxiety. A person who experiences anxiety about continued success may be fearful of validating expectations that are already in place and worry about them being raised to even higher levels.

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Other individuals may sabotage opportunities for success because they are fearful of how things may change as a result of their success. Individuals who fail at something know what to expect, as conditions immediately revert back to what is familiar.

However, trying something different and succeeding at it can force a person out of their comfort zone. The fear of change and the unknown can result in increased anxiety about success.

Success may trigger anxiety because of an increased perception of vulnerability. Being successful might put a person in the spotlight or in a position to have a greater impact on others. This prospect may sometimes scare people off who are not ready to be in the limelight or to hold this type of responsibility.

Some individuals who have been the victims of emotional abuse may experience anxiety related to success. These people may have been berated, teased, or put down with sentiments that they are “not good enough” or a “loser.” These individuals may have internalized these sentiments, resulting in feelings that they do not deserve success.   

Some people might be afraid of success, as it involves inherent risks of potential disappointment. They may adopt the idea that it is better to refrain from trying for success to avoid disappointment that could occur if they were to fail. Other people may link success with things that make them uncomfortable, such as competition and envy. People may sabotage things that could potentially lead to success in order to avoid competition and jealousy. 

Although the term “success” is mostly linked with positive feelings, it may also be linked with anxiety and fear. The fear of failure is easy to understand, but its counterpart, the fear of success is a little harder to comprehend for those that do not suffer from anxiety. However, it is important to keep in mind that success carries expectations, responsibility, and vulnerability along with it, so be kind to yourself or those around who may be experiencing increased anxiety as a result of getting what they want. 

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Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.
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