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Fear Of Success: How To Befriend The Unknown

Fear of Success

Not a week goes by without me getting diagnosed on social media with a new trauma or mental health issue I'd never heard of.

My latest scare involved an extreme fear of long words. 

[Trigger warning]

It's called hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia

I kid you not. 

Whoever the evil psychologist was to name this condition, I'd love to be friends.

In this article, I'll explore a more pressing phobia – metathesiophobia or the fear of success.

Clients often casually refer to it during sessions, but until very recently, this idea of being afraid to achieve something never made logical sense to me.

Why would anyone crave success and fear it simultaneously? 

Fearing the unknown

Fear of success starts to make a lot more sense once you frame it as a fear of the unknown.

After all, fearing the unknown has been baked into our wiring.   

Way back when we were still doodling mammoths on walls and cutting our toenails with flint, the act of switching living quarters, hunting grounds, or even dinner options could – and often did – have disastrous consequences. 

Uncertainty was a killer, and changing things up simply for the sake of it would never have crossed our early ancestors' minds.  

Indeed, up until the previous century, most humans would have encountered little variety in their daily lives. 

Social mobility was limited, and whether you grew up on a farm or a country estate, you'd almost certainly die on that same farm or country estate – bar the odd plague, war or other misfortune. 

Times have changed and, at least in some parts of the world, opportunities for creating wealth and success are abundant for those brave and privileged enough to grab them. 

Nevertheless, that old caveman wiring keeps holding us back. 

The backlash 

When we fear success, we're usually not afraid of the achievement itself but of the opportunity costs that might come with it.

Let's call it the backlash of success

You may be hoping for a well-paid role at a prestigious tech company, but if the backlash looks like a 70-hour work week, you'll probably think twice about applying. 

Or you're fantasising about being your own boss, but the thought of being judged – ridiculed even – by family members and friends for leaving behind your stable job stops you from making it happen.  
Some of those fears are probably justified, but that old wiring means you're skewed to look at the future with a negative confirmation bias and will focus only on the potential dangers. 

As a result, you assume any change is going to be: 

  1. Difficult – "I may not be able to handle it." "I don't know how to do this." "People are going to make it very hard for me to do this."

  2. Costly – "The disadvantages of change outweigh the benefits." "This will take me away from the things I value doing." "This may go against my values, identity, status, relationships, etc."

  3. Weird – "People will judge me negatively for making this change." "I'm going to look like an idiot." "Nobody else is doing what I want to do next."

To move past those beliefs and spur into action, you need to turn your anxiety about the potential sacrifices into excitement about the possible opportunities ahead, both of which are two sides of the coin.

Only once you're convinced that rather than being daunting, expensive and unconventional, change can actually be manageable, rewarding and 'normal', will you be ready to start taking action.

Author Erika Andersen calls this shift the change arc. 

Unless you go through that arc and come out the other end, you'll remain stuck.

Doable, rewarding and normal

Of course, there are also deeper psychological reasons that explain why some people are more comfortable with change than others – personality, issues around self-worth and confidence, etc. 

Nevertheless, there are plenty of times when all you need to get past your fear of success is a shift in mindset:  

  1. From difficult to doable. This is about reminding yourself that you can figure things out even if you don't know how to do something right now. In coaching, we call this self-efficacy. Find examples from your past where you successfully handled change with courage. Get clear on what success looks like, and then break whatever achievement you're working towards into its main milestones. Then, figure out the first series of actions you must take to move the dial forward. 

  2. From costly to rewarding. Turn your lens towards all the positive outcomes you can expect once you make that change or have achieved your goal. Also, look closely at the opportunity costs of not making those changes. The status quo may be appealing right now, but will it still be six months from now? Or two years from now? Will you be kicking yourself for not making the change in ten years? 

  3. From weird to normal. By seeking out others who've made a similar change, you'll realise that whatever you have planned is more manageable than you might think. It helps to find support from role models and allies for reassurance that the change you're about to make is possible and positive. They can also serve as evidence that your peer group won't shun you for wanting to do better for yourself. 

A great exercise to help you look at the pros and cons of making a decision is fear setting.

Popularised by author Tim Ferris and inspired by Stoic philosophy, fear setting is a practice where you systematically address all your fears and develop contingency plans for every possible challenge or uncertainty, helping you feel more equipped to face the unknown with confidence and resilience. 

It allows you to look at the worst-case scenario backlash and helps you move past fear-based paralysis. 

I'm linking to a worksheet I put together here based on Ferris's exercise. 

Conclusion: befriending the unknown

Fear of success is simply a more glamorous way to describe your fear of the unknown. To overcome it, you must reframe the unknown as something feasible and exciting. 

While your concerns about the backlash may be justified, you'll never move forward in life unless you frame the future consequences as manageable, rewarding and normal. 

And while those cavemen and women didn't have to deal with freakishly long words, they certainly had bigger backlashes to face then than we do now.  

If one of them hadn't braved the backlash of getting their hairy arms scorched trying to tame fire, we'd still be eating insects and sucking raw eggs.

If you'd like to find out more about how to get past your fear of success, let me know via the consultation link below.

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I send out one short email at the end of each month with a few practical tips on how to develop a more meaningful and exciting life and career.

You'll also be the first to find out about my next group coaching programme and upcoming retreats.