Fear of Success

Why on Earth would anyone be afraid of success? Success is supposed to be a good thing, right? You have the recognition and respect of people around you–peers, strangers, whoever. Yet some people do wrong things or refuse to do the right things, which can actively sabotage their chances for success. 

“Impostor syndrome” is a problem you hear about occasionally. This is where a person doubts his or her accomplishments to the point of fearing exposure as a fraud despite objective evidence to the contrary (Wikipedia). To cover up their “undeserved” recognition, a self-described “impostor” will do things such as not apply for well-deserved awards or recognition programs; hold off on attempting newer or greater projects; fail to promote the work they have done well; refuse to ask for help; or refuse to lighten up on the demands they put on themselves. These types of “impostors” have different manifestations, from “superwomen/men” to “perfectionists.”

All of these individuals won’t accept the fact that yes, indeed, they have done great things and are worthy of recognition and success. They are unable to internalize their external success when what they need to do is redefine what they think “success” means. It also means taking constructive criticism in a useful way so that they don’t harm their own chances or being willing to ask for help so they don’t try to do everything themselves.

Others fear success because of past experiences where they were mocked or actually abused for being successful. Or they’ve come close to success in the past only to have that success spoiled or taken from them in some fashion, leading to disappointment.

So What?

How does this sort of thinking manifest itself in a technical writing context? It might be allowing yourself to get buried in work because you think you’re the only one who can do everything as well as you would like. It might mean avoiding big, tough, or high-profile projects so that you don’t draw too much attention to yourself. It might mean refusing to share a success or “win” with your team. It might be something more insidious like refraining from calling attention to a publication you wrote because you have other things that are “more important” to do.

It all amounts to self-sabotage, and it’s not healthy.

So what do you do about it? Short of going to a professional therapist–and if the behavior is so obvious that others are commenting on it or it’s harming your previously hard-earned success, it might come to that–you can choose a few different strategies:

  • Reduce your inner need to be “perfect” or an “expert” before you are willing to take steps that further your success.
  • Recall moments where you were successful and felt that surge of well-being that resulted. In addition to those past feelings of success, consider what future benefits you could derive from achieving your goals now: more money, more access to other opportunities, etc.
  • Take small steps toward the success-oriented opportunities around you.
  • Consider whom you might become with additional success–not that you’ll be less than you were before, but more–better.
  • If you’re worried about “selling out” to others with your success, make a list of things you don’t want to do or become.

Bottom line: success can and should be a good thing; just don’t let the fear of it or an excess of it go to your head.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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