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Self Sabotage 101: Is your Client Scared Of Success?

Fear of success: When the spotlight of success is scarier than its shadow.

Shot of a young man sitting in the corner of a dark room with a scary figure on the wall.

Your Own Worst enemy

Imagine a client, let's call her Emily, who has always aspired to achieve a significant promotion in her career. As she edges closer to her goal, you notice a shift in her efforts; instead of intensifying her pursuit, she begins to withdraw. She misses important meetings, procrastinates on critical projects, and seems increasingly anxious. This behavior exemplifies a common yet perplexing scenario in coaching: self-sabotage, where the fear of success leads clients to undermine their own achievements.

Why would someone fear success, a goal they've worked toward for so long? For some, the imminent changes that success brings—disappointment with results, higher expectations, or a disruption of social dynamics—can be daunting. This fear can cause clients to subconsciously derail their progress, preferring the safety of the known to the uncertainty of achievement.

Join CLCI Live as Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC) delve into the underlying causes of your client being scared of success and explore strategies coaches can use to help clients reframe their goals from daunting inevitabilities into exciting opportunities.

Big Scary Goals

Fearing success seems counterproductive or even paradoxical. If we are avoiding working towards our goals, is it because we are scared of that goal or because we are scared we will fail to reach it after trying hard? Some will posit that a fear of success is “simply fear of failure, one step removed.”

But what is a success? Is success when your goal is met and do you feel fulfilled after reaching your goal?

Let’s think of an example of why someone might fear success, using that above perspective. You might really, really want to be a successful person. You’ve made a roadmap of what “successful person” looks like to you, and you’re ready to get to work. 

So you have your goals along this road and begin to meet them with the initial hope to finish them all. But these stepping stone successes don’t feel as fulfilling as you imagined. They’re hollow or even bitter. They’re disappointments. 

Now you’re looking further down the road at all the remainders of your goals. That final, overarching hope to be “successful” isn’t inspiring you, but instead you look at it with distaste. The question is nagging: when I become a successful person, is that life going to feel this disappointing too? Maybe it would be better if I don’t make it there.

Why Is your Client Scared Of Success?

There are many different fears tied into an overall fear of success. They might range from a fear of backlash, to losing friends, to gaining overwhelming responsibilities. There are a wide variety of factors. For instance, one essay in Psychology Today writes that women will often fear success out of the worry that the power to shape their own life will “render them unlovable.” In another situation, someone might fear reaching their goal because they are afraid it will lead to the people telling them this success isn’t actually “you” and that “you’re not being true to yourself.” Here are just some of the ‘fears’ that may manifest as your client's fear of success.

  • Fear of expectations. 

  • Fear of the work it will take to reach a goal.

  • Fear of feeling disappointed.  

  • Fear of having the success taken away later/Fear of the loss of a temporary success. 

  • Fear that you won’t do as well with further successes. 

  • Fear that the success will be criticized or hurt people. 

  • Fear of acknowledging you’ve succeeded because you’ll jinx it or don’t deserve it/Imposter syndrome

  • Fear of change. 

  • Fear of being seen.

  • Fear of loneliness. 

  • Fear of having been wrong.

  • Fear of failure

  • Fear of the success itself- that it’s not actually what you want, not what you view as a victory, but that your world is pushing you into.

Sabotage in Action

Self sabotage can be, and often is, subconscious. So most people that have an active fear of success are not hyper aware of that fact. Instead, the fear manifests through their actions. 

Some of the common manifestations are procrastination of some kind. Perfectionism is another type of double-edged blade that is used as an excuse for not working towards a goal. Someone might say they want to be considered for a promotion at work now that the former person holding the position is leaving; then, when asked later, will shy away and say that they haven’t really pushed because they aren’t ready yet. 

Limiting beliefs can become a safety barrier for some. Others might have experienced failures to reach a former goal that leave them debilitated at the idea of trying again. 

Some clients might never pause to celebrate when a step towards a goal is met.

People fearing success may not follow through until “reminded” to. They aren’t enthusiastic or excited at the prospect of success. They become anxious instead of happy when they envision what it will be like to meet their goals.

So, what can you do when your client seems to be avoiding their own success?

Tailored Coaching Strategies

When beginning a coaching relationship, it's vital to establish clear, mutually agreed upon goals with your client. This initial step sets the foundation for all future interactions. As coaching progresses, maintaining a focus on these goals is crucial, but it's equally important to adapt each session to address the client's immediate needs and concerns.

Encouraging clients to clearly articulate what they wish to accomplish in each session can reveal underlying hesitations or anxieties, including a potential fear of success in regards to the overall goal. This method not only breaks down the journey into manageable steps but also fosters a deeper self-reflection about their aspirations and the obstacles they perceive.

Here’s how coaches can guide this reflective process:

  1. Prompt Reflective Thinking: Ask clients to explain not just what their goals are, but why they are drawn to these objectives. What do they hope to feel or achieve upon accomplishing them? This conversation can illuminate hidden fears or reluctance that might be misconstrued as a fear of success.

  2. Address Underlying Anxieties: As clients discuss their daily goals and broader aspirations, listen for signs of anxiety or avoidance that could suggest a deeper issue. Use this as an opportunity to gently explore what success means to them and what about it might be intimidating.

  3. Encourage Incremental Progress: Reinforce the value of small, consistent actions towards their goals. Ask into how the client celebrates these achievements, which can help diminish the overwhelming aspect of larger objectives and reduce the impulse to sabotage these efforts.

  4. Self-Accountability: Explore and regularly reflect on the progress towards the goals and the action plans they have set for themselves. This gentle reminder helps clients stay aware of their commitments and consider the steps they need to take next. While it's important to discuss progress, remember that the primary role of a coach is to partner with the client on what they understand to be personal growth, not to act as an enforcer of accountability. This approach helps maintain a positive coaching relationship, where clients feel supported but not pressured, allowing them to openly discuss setbacks and achievements. By fostering this environment, clients are more likely to take ownership of their goals and the pace at which they approach them.

  5. Cultivate a Growth Mindset: If a setback or a moment of self-sabotage is encountered, explore how that setback could be part of the growth process. Ask how these challenges can be leveraged as opportunities to learn and strengthen their resolve, rather than as insurmountable obstacles.

As a coach, your role isn't to diagnose fears but to facilitate a space where clients can explore and understand their motivations and hesitations. By focusing on what clients want to achieve in each session, you help them build the self-awareness necessary to recognize and overcome their own barriers to success, whether they are aware of these barriers or not.

Through patient partnership and supportive questioning, coaches can help clients navigate the complex feelings surrounding success, enabling them to approach their goals with clarity and confidence. This approach not only addresses immediate concerns but also builds a resilient mindset that is crucial for long-term success and fulfillment in their personal and professional lives.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Kyle Rodriguez (MCPC), Brooke Adair Walters (ACC) and Lisa Finck (MCC)!

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