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Are You Afraid Of Being Successful?

Someone holding a business card with a smiley face on it.

We often talk about getting over the fear of failure in order to move forward, but is the fear of success holding you back?

What does it mean to be afraid of success?

Fear of success is characterized by the subtle, often unconscious ways we hold ourselves back when we’re suddenly on track to achieve a goal: not speaking up during meetings; showing up to work late; or simply not doing our best work. CNN developed a quiz on this issue, based on a questionnaire that was published in the book The Success-Fearing Personality, by Donnah Canavan, Katherine Garner, and Peter Gumpert, so you can see how likely you are to become your own worst enemy.

However, if you are afraid of success, it’s important to dig deeper and uncover beliefs and attitudes that are stopping you from pursuing the career you want. Which one of these fears is keeping you from succeeding?

You’re afraid of selling out

Are you worried that succeeding will change you as a person? Do you think people will talk about you have sold out? 99U addressed this issue, arguing that there will always be someone out there who doesn’t like what you’re doing. The key is to be clear on your values as you move forward in your career:

“Make sure you are comfortable with your choices. Make a list of all the things you would consider ‘selling out,’ and which you’re not prepared to do. Then keep the list handy. As long as you don’t do the things on that list, you can look yourself in the mirror. Whatever anyone else says about you.”

You’re afraid of becoming too removed from your cause

Growing as a nonprofit professional can mean changes when it comes to the responsibilities and work that you do. But if your passion is doing hands-on work to protect the environment, and you’re promoted to a more managerial desk job, does moving up mean you’re moving away from your initial passion?

In a word, no. Yes, being at a desk may not seem as hands-on as working in a community garden, but every organization needs support at all levels, not just the visible folks out on the street.

In order to combat this issue, think about how your new position is still connected to your original issue or passion. Does this job mean you get to talk to bloggers and spread the word about the organization? Are you on the accounting team that makes sure your dedicated on-the-ground staff gets paid? Find a few tangible ways you are connected back to the original cause—and also try to get back out there every now and then to help in the on-the-ground work.

You’re afraid you won’t be able to handle the pressure

Finally reaching your dream can be exhilarating…and terrifying. Sometimes you’re legitimately worried about the new challenges success can bring, including more responsibility and visibility. But take a deep breath and focus. Tiny Buddha has several tips for overcoming fear and starting to thrive, including creating a success library of quotes, inspirational stories, and accounts of your own past successes, to turn to when you need motivation. Also, remember that you don’t have to do everything alone. Reach out to your teammates, mentor, or friends when you need guidance and support. Give yourself time to adjust to the new responsibilities and brush up on key skills.

You’re afraid people will think you’re an imposter

Ah, imposter syndrome: the belief that you actually don’t deserve to be where you are and that someone will “out” you.

Some of the strategies mentioned earlier—connecting with supportive people, reminding yourself of your successes, and staying true to your values—can help you work through feeling like an imposter. Rebecca Thurman over at US News has additional helpful advice:

"4. Become a mentor. When you help others in their own career paths, you’ll realize how familiar your concerns are. Empathy is a powerful healer. Providing strategies to help others overcome their fears will put your own in perspective and will allow you to be more realistic and friendly toward your insecurities. Not to mention that sharing your success with others will reinforce the validity of your accomplishments. No longer will you feel that “luck” got you that promotion, but that you deserved it on your own merit.”

Oftentimes, we work so hard for a certain goal or specific accomplishment, that our fears of actually succeeding can come out of nowhere. It’s important to take time to acknowledge those fears, understand the root causes, and figure out how to overcome them.

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