If you had to choose one word that described all great entrepreneurs, is there a better one than that? To eschew the steady paycheck and comfortable lifestyle in order to pursue a lifelong dream that will undoubtedly face countless obstacles and take years to become a success. That certainly requires a lack of fear that most people simply do not possess.

But what if one of the biggest obstacles one must overcome to reach their full potential and see their business succeed comes from within? How many seemingly fearless entrepreneurs are actually holding themselves back by an unseen, and quite possibly unrecognized, fear?

While many people believe those with an entrepreneurial spirit are driven by a fear of failure, many of them may be self-sabotaging due to a different fear altogether. They may be suffering from a fear of success.

What is a Fear of Success?

Fear of success may be a difficult concept for a lot of us to wrap our minds around. A fear of failure makes complete sense but how can anyone be afraid of succeeding? The answer lies in the fact it is not success itself that paralyzes some but rather it’s the consequences of that success.

An oft-cited quote from American spiritual teacher and best-selling author Marianne Williamson gets to the root of the fear of success.

“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. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”

One of the more prominent scholars who explored this territory is 20th century American psychologist Abraham Maslow who wrote the book The Farther Reaches of Human Nature in which he expounds upon the fear of greatness. He calls this phenomenon the Jonah Complex after the Biblical character who sought to run away from the destiny God had bestowed upon him. In the book he writes:

“In my own notes I had at first labeled this the “fear of one’s own greatness”, or the “evasion of one’s destiny” or the “running away from one’s own best talents”…It is certainly true that many of us evade our constitutionally suggested vocations (call, destiny, task in life, mission). So often we run away from the responsibilities dictated (or rather suggested) by nature, by fate, even sometimes by accident, just as Jonah tried – in vain – to run away from his fate.”

“We fear our highest possibilities…We are generally afraid to become that which we glimpse in our most perfect moments, under the most perfect conditions, under the conditions of greatest courage. We enjoy and even thrill to godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.”

The Fear of Success Manifested in Today’s Business Environment

One of the biggest reasons fear of success can grab a hold of many in the business environment is because we have a basic fear of the unknown. We know the new world order will bring changes, but what if those changes aren’t all positive? We tend to tell ourselves stories in the form of questions that begin to paint a narrative. Russell Bishop addressed this occurrence in his article for the Huffington Post in which he writes:

“Have you ever entertained thoughts about what might happen if…? Imagine telling yourself a story that goes something like this: “Well, first I’ll be the one with the office. Then I’ll be the one making decisions. But what if the decisions don’t work out? What if I don’t know what to do? What if I’m not very good at it? Now I’m going to tell them what to do, and then I’m going to have to do their performance reviews. How will my friends/co-workers respond to me being in charge? What if they start complaining about me? What if they abandon me?”

For the entrepreneur, those questions could take the form of, “What happens if the business takes me away from my family? What if overwhelming success means my friends think I’m too good for them? What if this family business venture drives a wedge between me and my family members?”

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There are other basic human fears and hang-ups that can cause us to balk at opportunity and success when it presents itself. Gordon Tredgold, Founder and CEO, Leadership Principles, listed some of the major ones for an article in Inc.com. Amongst the issues on his list are the following:

  • What if someone finds out who you really are? (aka The Imposter Syndrome)
  • Don’t believe you can succeed
  • I don’t want to appear arrogant
  • I’m petrified of public speaking
  • I don’t want to look stupid
  • I can’t stop scrutinizing what people are thinking
  • I’m scared to ask for what I want

How To Overcome A Fear of Success

Because these underlying fears are often products of questions and concerns we tell ourselves, one of the most effective ways of neutralizing those fears is to play out the answers to those questions. Renowned American psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw gave this very advice to a woman who was trying to work through her fears in 2009.

“Monsters live in the dark, and if you have these fears and you never play out what the worst-case scenario is, then it always looms bigger in your mind than if you actually just think about what would happen.”

So if someone finds themselves plagued by the question, ‘How will my friends and family react to my success’, play the answer out all the way. You might reason that “Yes there may be awkward bumps in the road in the beginning but ultimately they want what’s best for me and if they are who I believe they are, they will continue to be there for me.”

The first step to addressing any problem is admitting there is one. By acknowledging the presence of a fear of success and then working through the underlying issues, you’ll be able to move forward and shine where previously you were rendered paralyzed.