I’ve had two conversations in as many days with women whose careers are in transition. As we discussed what’s holding them back from taking a giant leap toward their new dreams, I heard a common challenge—fear. Not fear of failure or fear of the unknown, but fear of success. It seems a little strange to those just starting their professional journeys, but for those of us who’ve experienced the highs and lows of entrepreneurship, we understand.
One friend was a court reporter who eventually started her own company that became wildly successful. She was well-known for her integrity, work ethic and drive. Unfortunately, it was her drive that cost her dearly. Stress almost killed her, and her marriage disintegrated. Financially, she was at the top of her game. Personally, her life was in shambles. She sold her business and ran as fast as she could toward another profession. Now, years later, she’s feeling flat, wishing she could find the motivation to take her current business to a higher level. Reflecting on how success once wrecked her life, she’s resolved to play small and not let her giftedness shine too brightly. The thought of reaching the pinnacle again terrifies her.
Another friend had a tough first marriage, but has been blessed for the past 20 years by the man of her dreams. She has a precious teenage daughter and two step-daughters, and seems to live a charmed life. She’s a gifted musician who’s written several musicals based on biblical characters. She’s been told over and over she should market them on a bigger scale. She told me she is afraid of success, and what it would do to her family.
I’ve worked with so many clients over the years who’ve fallen into the same behavior patterns. They worry; they compare, and they let themselves sink in the quicksand of self-sabotage instead of letting themselves soar. They procrastinate; make excuses and imagine they don’t have what it takes to succeed. Once they start making progress on their goals, often they stall out as they become afraid of what lies ahead. It’s scary up there at the top.
Why is success often so ominous?
- Past experiences shape present perceptions. Perhaps you’ve seen people fall hard after reaching the top. Maybe you’ve fallen yourself. It’s safer to play small than to put yourself at physical, emotional, even financial risk.
- You may be afraid that, if you’re successful, you’ll have to compromise your values. We see that every day.
- Success may imply working long hours, exhausting travel, and isolation.
- The pursuit of success brings with it occasional failure, and that hurts.
- You don’t think you deserve success. As my very gifted composer-friend said, “I’m just a MASH (middle-aged suburban housewife).”
Marianne Williamson summed it up in her book A Return to Love, when she said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
How do you overcome fear of success?
- Embrace your unique God-given gifts and know you have an integral role to play in the world. You were put here for a purpose, and if you hold back, the world will miss out on what you were created to do.
- Create your own definition of success. Don’t let the world dictate your view.
- Remember you are in control of your decisions. You have the power to say no at any moment.
- Set clear expectations about what you do and do not want. Be intentional in your planning. Make sure your goals align with your deepest desires.
- Be willing to draw boundaries when things seem to be getting away from you. Don’t let anyone or anything compromise your expectations or your commitment to your core values.
- Create a personal board of advisors who will support your journey. Ask them for advice. Tell them when you need encouragement, and believe what they say about who you are.
- Reflect on times when you have overcome your fears, and let those memories fuel your confidence.
Again from Marianne Williamson, ”Your playing small does not serve the world.” It’s your time to make life count! Don’t hold back any longer.
Susan, the full version of those Marianne Williamson quotes is a favourite of mine, I’ve got the entire paragraph printed out and stuck right in front of my nose in my office!
Thanks for this fabulous post, so much great advice! I particularly loved your first two points about how to overcome fear of success. Number one I have to remind myself of daily and number two is something I don’t believe many of us think about enough. I asked one of my clients earlier this week what success would look like to her personally, and she told me she’d never even thought about it. Turns out it was wildly different from what she’s subconsciously been pursuing!
Esther, too often we get caught up in the world’s definition of success. As you said, we just push ahead without ever really thinking about what matters most to us. We must give ourelves permission to pursue what makes us supremely happy, leaving the world’s demands behind. And we must strive to reach the end of our days with no regrets, content with what we have accomplished along the way.
I’ve never been afraid of success or not believed in my abilities. I do have a problem when I run up against a wall because I’m female and now, I’m “a certain age.” After a while, it’s kind of like the pain when you stub your toe. It’s annoying; it hurts, and I’m not sure I want to keep stubbing my toe. I also think about the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing, expecting different results. While I’m not insane, I have switched up my methods, knowing they’re going to take me longer to get from here to there. Very frustrating! xoxox, Brenda
I needed that! I had a lot of outward success in my early career that did not serve me well personally and memories of that often hold me back. Thank you for reminding me that playing small does not serve the world well and we have a duty to share our gifts. xo
Yes, Jen, it’s time for you to shine brightly! Don’t hold back…the world needs all you have. How liberating it is to find purpose behind our work and service, which brings a whole new perspective to success!
Beautifully written, and right on time, Susan!
Excellent reminders as I set sail on a new course, thank you.