Most of us fear failure. If you live with social anxiety, you probably fear it even more so. It might be surprising then, to realize that in addition to your fear of failure there is another fear lurking. One that you might not have thought about much or even believed could be a fear.
That fear is the fear of success.
The fear of winning.
The fear of doing well.
The fear of being recognized for your accomplishments.
Does this sound like you?
There are many reasons why people with social anxiety might fear success. At it’s core, what you are really afraid of is shaking up the status quo. As much as you might hate your life, hate yourself, hate your job, hate that you have no friends, hate your anxiety…. it’s what you know. Success… well that’s a bit scary, whether it’s social success, work success, financial success. It feels like that would come with responsibilities that you don’t know whether you can handle.
Why We Fear Winning
In the case of social anxiety in particular, you might literally be afraid of being thrust into the limelight because of your success.
Imagine winning the lottery. Writing a bestseller. There’s a reason why some authors/musicians/actors become private people—they were not prepared for what success would bring.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, because we all need our privacy.
How do you know if your fear of success or fear of winning is holding you back?
Ask yourself this:
Have you ever….
- Done destructive things to handicap yourself such as drinking too much alcohol?
- Refused to set goals so that you had no chance of success?
- Been on the brink of success or nearly reached a goal and then suddenly changed paths to avoid going all the way? For example, not taking that last course toward getting your degree or closed down a business just when you started to attract more customers?
Another reason you might fear success is that you are worried others will be mad, envious, jealous, or hurt. If you are moving up, you might feel like you are leaving others behind. People with social anxiety are highly attuned to what other people are thinking/feeling, and you may worry that your success will come at the cost of other people’s happiness.
In fact, in Asian countries, it is actually expected that you downplay your success so as not to make other people feel bad.
Research on the Fear of Winning and Social Anxiety
Fear of success or fear of winning may be closely related to a fear of positive evaluation, which has been studied extensively by researchers in terms of how it relates to social anxiety, perfectionism, depression, etc. What we know is that fear of positive evaluation is a real problem for people with social anxiety.
People who have a fear of positive evaluation also tend to have maladaptive perfectionism, meaning that their perfectionism interferes with living life.
In fact, people who are perfectionists may actually develop social anxiety if they have a tendency to fear positive evaluation.
As a whole, the research shows that social anxiety and the fear of positive evaluation are related.
It’s quite the pickle! You are both afraid of people thinking badly of you and also of them thinking good things about you. What is a person to do?
Overcome Your Fear of Success
Beyond simply working on your social anxiety/perfectionism, there are specific things you can do to stop handicapping yourself from achieving success.
No, we’re not talking about “The Secret” here—although the message is similar. It’s not so much that what you seek you attract, but that when you are open to success, you allow it to happen. It was there all along. You were on the brink of it many times. You may have even felt it, achieved it, gotten there.. but couldn’t hold on.
I’m telling you now to let it happen.
If that feels too hard, then write down what you are feeling.
Ask yourself what you are afraid of.
Then accept your reasons for being afraid of success.
Realize that failure will always be part of success. You can’t get to to the top without falling once in a while.
But your abilities are not limited. Your skills are not limited. Those limits are ones you’ve created in your mind to protect yourself from what you fear the most.
Once you’ve decided to move past that fear, there’s nothing left to do.
Set those goals… and
Stick with that plan that is becoming successful.
And if you feel like being self-destructive, write about that too, until the feeling passes.
Yap K, Gibbs AL, Francis AJP, Schuster SE. Testing the Bivalent Fear of Evaluation Model of Social Anxiety: The Relationship between Fear of Positive Evaluation, Social Anxiety, and Perfectionism. Cogn Behav Ther. 2016;45(2):136-149.
Weeks JW, Howell AN. The bivalent fear of evaluation model of social anxiety: further integrating findings on fears of positive and negative evaluation. Cogn Behav Ther. 2012;41(2):83-95.
Weeks JW. Replication and extension of a hierarchical model of social anxiety and depression: fear of positive evaluation as a key unique factor in social anxiety. Cogn Behav Ther. 2015;44(2):103-116.