The word “success” is most commonly linked to positive feelings resulting from some level of accomplishment. Most people strive for success in various aspects of their lives, including academics, work, relationships, health, or any other area they care about in which progress and achievement are visible.
The list of potential areas for success can go on and on, but people generally strive to be successful overall. One would rarely think that the word “success” could be associated with negativity or worry. However, for some, success is linked with feeling of 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.
Causes of Success Anxiety
Success anxiety can be related to a number of underlying causes. They are not necessarily exclusive to another, as some people fear success as a result of several or all of these reasons.
Pressure of Continued Success
Success often carries significant 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 that 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 maintain a high standard of living.
These types of expectations may become too much for some people to handle, triggering a significant amount of distress and anxiety. A person who experiences anxiety about continued success feels pressure to reaffirm and validate expectations that are already in place and worries about them being raised to even higher levels.
Fear of Change
Some people may sabotage opportunities for success because they fear the changes that might result from their success. For example, if someone is nominated for run for president of a club, they may intentionally lose the election in order to avoid having to step outside their comfort zone. When they fail, conditions immediately revert back to what is familiar and comfortable.
However, trying something different and succeeding at it can bring about personal growth. The fear of change and the unknown can prevent a person from excelling in other areas of life.
Fear of Unwanted Attention
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 the center of attention.
Low Self-Esteem Due to Trauma
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.” They may have internalized these sentiments, resulting in feelings that they do not deserve success.
Fear of Failure
Some people might be afraid of success because it involves the inherent risk of potential disappointment. They may adopt the approach that it is better to refrain from trying to succeed and avoiding the disappointment that could occur if they were to fail.
Avoidance of Uncomfortable Social Situations
Other people may link success with things that make them uncomfortable, such as competition and envy. They may sabotage opportunities that could potentially lead to success in order to avoid competition and jealousy. This is likely also linked to social anxiety, low self-esteem or both.
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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- Sagar, S. S., & Stoeber, J. (2009). Perfectionism, Fear of Failure, and Affective Responses to Success and Failure: The Central Role of Fear of Experiencing Shame and Embarrassment. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31(5), 602–627. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.31.5.602
- Ishiyama, F. I., & Chabassol, D. J. (1984). Fear of Success Consequence Scale: Measurement of Fear of Social Consequences of Academic Success. Psychological Reports, 54(2), 499–504. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.19220.127.116.119