What sounds scarier to you?
Failure, humiliation, and disappointment?
Or, accomplishing goals, reaching destinations, and doing things you never thought you could do?
Failure is everyone’s worst fear.
When someone decides to pursue something, they get filled with fantasies and hopes for what they can achieve.
But people often run into an unexpected problem on the way to their goals. That problem is the realization of making it.
Realizing their actions are making a difference, their hard work is paying off, they can survive failure and embarrassment, and their crazy fantasies are getting closer to reality.
That can shock you to the core. Knowing you are moving into uncharted territory, and you’re changing in the process. This is the fear of success.
Let’s address it and get beyond it.
A Bit About My Life
I was always intimidated by other people. My social anxiety was intense, and most social situations were a struggle for me.
Eventually, I decided this was a miserable way of living, and I set out to beat it. One day, with some encouragement, I made a huge stride.
I approached a stranger on the street and started a conversation. It went well. I wasn’t humiliated or destroyed. I was terrified, but I did it anyway. I expected to feel great about this.
And I did feel a strong emotion. But it wasn’t joy or relief. It was the feeling that I had done something very wrong.
Rationally, I could see my accomplishment for what it was. But my feelings were different. I was stuck in cognitive dissonance. I almost felt like I committed a crime. Like I betrayed someone or crossed a line.
These were my thoughts; “I’ve come too far. I should turn back. I have no right to be doing this.”
But who was I betraying? Who was this affecting? Why did I feel so bad about doing what was best for me? Old and new identities were grinding against each other, and I didn’t know what to do.
Since then, I’ve discovered 3 concepts that fuel the fear and shame around success. Let me break them down for you.
Imagine a man or woman who is in some way less fortunate than you. See them as a friend of yours.
One day, you confide in them about wanting to pursue something greater for yourself.
The unfortunate man says to you, “It’s not fair that you have advantages in life I do not have. Because of my misfortune, you don’t deserve to move forward. You’re going to stay right where you are, with me. Because that is what’s fair.”
You see that the man is suffering, and you feel for him. You would fix his misfortune if you could.
But, to balance a lack of fairness in the world, and to keep him happy, you agree to stay with him. And not move forward. And not live your life. And not reach any potential. You just couldn’t hurt him like that. What kind of monster would you be?
What a gross paragraph.
This was my mentality.
No one had explicitly said these things to me, but I adopted this character in my head because of my flawed perception of the world, and because of how little I cared about myself.
I thought that living the best life I could would be something to feel guilty about. I felt I would be abandoning the people who were still struggling. Who am I to succeed, when so many others would be still be suffering?
First, you must ask yourself, if you were the unfortunate man, would you put these demands on someone? Would you ask them to sabotage their life because you felt you were missing out?
The truth is, all of us have advantages and disadvantages in life, and what we consider fair is strongly subjective. People’s lives are complex and dynamic. One perceived advantage may not equate to a better life, or to a better position, or to happiness.
But that’s not the only problem with appeasing the unfortunate man.
Nietzsche had something to say about this coddling attitude. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote in “On the Pitying”:
“For in seeing the sufferer suffer, I was ashamed on account of his shame; and in helping him, I sorely wound his pride….But if you have a suffering friend, be a resting place for his suffering, but like a hard bed, a field cot: thus you will serve him best…Thus speaks of all great love: it surpasses even forgiveness and pity.”Thus spoke Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche (pg. 78-79)
He is saying that if you care for someone, pitying them and feeding into their victimhood does not help them. A friend would tell a harsh truth or point out the flaws in their friend’s attitude. Tough love can be the most real love there is.
And coddling is often a kind way of being evil. Treating people like they’re helpless, only makes them more helpless. The world needs compassion, but we also have to realize that adults get nowhere being treated like children.
Staying behind with the unfortunate man is the ultimate form of coddling. And his bitter, hateful, selfish view of the world is not something any decent person should entertain.
But as it turns out, many who have experienced tremendous misfortune do not come to think this way. Shame psychologist Brenѐ Brown addresses this in Daring Greatly. She writes:
“Be grateful for what you have. When I asked people who survived tragedy how we can cultivate and show more compassion for people who are suffering, the answer was always the same: Don’t shrink away from the joy of your child because I’ve lost mine. Don’t take what you have for granted – celebrate it. Don’t apologize for what you have. Be grateful for it and share your gratitude with others. Are your parents healthy? Be thrilled. Let them know how much they mean to you. When you honor what you have, you’re honoring what I’ve lost.” (Emphasis added).Daring Greatly – Brenѐ Brown, (pg. 125)
You can still show humanity, even in your worst circumstances.
So, if you are being held back by an unfortunate man in your conscience, feel free to tell him, “Go to hell, you miserable little victim.”
People feel massive resistance to challenging their identities and leaving their old selves behind. Being who we were before is comfortable, safe, and familiar. Even if we hate every second of it.
Other people’s judgments weigh on us too. If you start moving forward, those closest to you will notice changes in how you act and carry yourself. And that may not sit well with everyone you know. Your positive change will be intimidating and offensive to those stuck in their unhappy modes of being.
Steven Pressfield mentions this phenomenon in The War of Art. He writes:
“Often couples or close friends, even entire families, will enter into tacit compacts whereby each individual pledges (unconsciously) to remain mired in the same slough in which she and all her cronies have become so comfortable. The highest treason a crab can commit is to make a leap for the rim of the bucket….”The War of Art – Steven Pressfield (pg. 19-20)
You are not doing anyone a favor by staying in the bucket. When you accomplish something, people who care about you will applaud you, and people who don’t will oppose you. Changing is a strong litmus test for revealing who your real friends are.
Your success should serve as an inspiration for what’s possible, not as an insult or a betrayal.
I’m going to reference one more work. Religious or not, there is value in this. This is a poem written by Marianne Williamson:
“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’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine,
As children do.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,Marianne Williamson – our deepest fear
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.”
That hits the nail on the head, doesn’t it?
If you sacrifice your potential to save someone the trouble of feeling bad, you are committing an act of self-hatred. And if every great person held themselves back to not disparage others, there would be no great people.
So, if you don’t feel like you deserve what you’ve achieved, even if you earned it, then you might be holding a grudge against yourself. I certainly was.
Forgiveness is something you can work towards in addition to your ambitions. Is the old you, the person you’re leaving behind, so unforgivable? Can you define yourself by who you are now, as opposed to who you were then?
The fact that you are trying at all is admirable and redemptive. And I like to keep in mind that no human is born undeserving, not one.
So, if fear of success is holding you back, lean into it, as you would any fear.
It won’t be instant, but as you move forward, the dissonance can start to fade, and you might even catch yourself feeling like you deserve something.
Maybe for the first time.