April 1, 2001
Joyfully Succeeding
 Learning to Enjoy Your
Victories--And
Not Sabotage Them
    
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An aunt of mine, after graduating from high school, enrolled in college. She faithfully fulfilled the requirements of the program for nearly four years. Then, two weeks before graduation--she quit. Although only a few assignments remained between her and her goal, she claimed sheíd lost interest and saw no purpose in completing the degree.

My auntís stunning decision demonstrates one of the greatest ironies of human nature. Even when a goal is achievable for us, we may still bail out, or do something so counterproductive that it prevents our succeeding. Our uneasiness with success leads us to sabotage dreams that are well within our reach.

As dearly as we may long for success on one level, we may dread it on another. If our wariness of succeeding doesnít spur us to do something insidious to thwart our dream, it may still prevent us from truly enjoying our achievement, or from fully reaping its benefits.

My auntís behavior was extreme, unquestionably. The actions we may take to prevent a dreamís occurring, or to dampen our enjoyment of it, are often more subtle and ingenious. They may be subconsciously-driven, to the extent that we fail to recognize we have sabotaged our goal. Have you ever caught a cold just before giving a talk or vocal performance? Had an accident on the way to a job interview or important meeting? Suffered a falling-out over some minor matter with someone in a position to help you? Such incidents can indicate you are uneasy with success.

I say can, for the fact that we experience a setback doesnít necessarily mean we fear succeeding or are being victimized by subconscious constraints. Yet our anxieties about success can induce our subconscious to act against us.

Why We Fear Success

1. The fear of losing othersí approval. I donít know what prompted my aunt, long deceased, to opt out of her college program so near to completing it. I do have a strong suspicion. It was unusual enough for a woman to attend college in the early twentieth century, let alone complete it. She may have feared that gaining the status of being college-educated would cause others to think she was too driven by masculine instincts. Suitors for marriage might then be frightened away.

If Iím right, then she demonstrates one of the most common reasons we can fear success to the point of sabotaging a dream. Weíre afraid of offending others whose affection we crave.

While the social climate for women has improved radically in the near-century since my aunt abandoned her college dream, many still worry that success will work against their romantic aspirations. Will gaining that career promotion or advanced degree make me come off as too successful, or too educated? Will it alienate the man who wants to feel superior to me at these points in a relationship, or who is looking for a woman more drawn to domestic and family life?

Both men and women worry about the impact of success on friendships and family relationships. Will those who love me as I am now like me as much in my new role? Will they think that Iím acting pridefully by pursuing my dream? Will they turn their back on me if I succeed, or withdraw their affection--even in subtle ways?

Such concerns are normal when weíre working toward a dream, and in extreme cases may cause us to scuttle it.

2. The fear of one-upping others. We may also feel uneasy about succeeding in an area where a family member or close friend has failed. Our success might cause them to feel the pain of their failure even more greatly, we imagine, and so we fear hurting them. Even if this person is rooting for us to succeed, we may still feel itís inappropriate to allow ourselves to enjoy a benefit they failed to attain.

In her mammoth fifteen-year study of the effects of divorce on children, Judith Wallerstein observes that women whose mothers suffered a failed marriage often feel guilty availing themselves of a good opportunity to marry. It isnít fair to let themselves enjoy bliss that life failed to serve up to mom.*

While men may hold back from marriage out of a similar concern of hurting their father, they more typically fear one-upping him in career, and may feel guilty about excelling in a professional area where their dad was unsuccessful.

3. Breaking the comfort zone of failure. A more subtle problem occurs if we experienced failure while growing up to the point that we became accustomed to not succeeding. Failure may now be such a familiar experience that we feel uncomfortable breaking its inertia.

The challenge can be especially great if we were rewarded for failing. A child may find that his problems bring him more welcome attention than his achievements. Take Sarah, a fifth grader, whose parents have an unstable marriage. Her folks are so preoccupied with their own problems that, when she brings home good marks, they scarcely notice. Yet when the principal phones to tell them that Sarah has skipped school, they stop fighting long enough to focus on helping her work through her problems. Sarah not only cherishes the attention, but relishes the fact that her misbehavior has encouraged at least temporary harmony between her parents.

If a child has enough experiences like this, she may grow to regard failure as a rewarding experience. "If I succeed, who notices?" she thinks; "if I fail, Iím consoled." As an adult, she may strongly want to succeed in certain areas, yet be held back by the force of these expectations established in childhood, that are now largely subconscious.

4. The fear of punishment from God. The most crippling anxiety some people experience about success is that God will punish them if they reach their goal. God knows they donít deserve to succeed, they assume. He wonít like it if they do. He will crown their victory with misfortune.

The fear of Godís punishment for succeeding is a natural human instinct, and much more deeply imbedded than many realize. So much so, that many primitive religions have rituals for appeasing the gods upon achieving personal success.

In Overcoming the Fear of Success, therapist Martha Freedman tells of a carpenter she counseled who, fulfilling a lifeís dream, had worked diligently at building a first-class racing boat. Yet he couldnít bring himself to apply the finishing coat of paint, fearing that once he completed his project, heíd die. The story does have a happy ending. With Freedmanís help, he found the courage to take that final step. He didnít die or experience disaster. To the contrary, he found the experience of succeeding so exhilarating, that it inspired him to launch a career building master racing craft. Yet his example shows the insidious way in which the fear of Godís punishment can blunt our creative output.*

Itís not unusual for Christians, who believe strongly in the grace and forgiveness of God, and in his rewards for obedience, to also fear his displeasure over their achieving personal dreams. We are inconsistent creatures, and may even believe that God is calling us to pursue a goal and, at the same time, fear his chastisement if we succeed.

5. "The Impostor Phenomenon." We may be troubled as well with unreasonable concern about being incompetent or unfit for a new opportunity. It may lead us to worry that God will sabotage our success--since we fear weíre misrepresenting ourselves to others--or that weíre destined to do something embarrassing to trip ourselves up.

In If Iím So Successful, Why Do I Feel Like a Fake?, Joan Harvey documents how many highly-skilled professionals, who receive well-deserved promotions, still worry incessantly that they are not truly qualified for their new positions--a problem she terms "the Impostor Phenomenon." Not a few fear that some mortifying incident will broadside their life, exposing them to the world as a fake. Itís a common rumination among those with impostor fears that "the Big One is coming."*

Fears of incompetence may plague us in areas besides career, including ministry and social-service work, parenting, and when moving to new stages in a relationship.

Part of the problem, Harvey explains, is that taking on a new opportunity requires us to assume new roles. Itís normal to feel uncomfortable with these new identities at first, since weíre unfamiliar with them. We may interpret this uneasiness as signaling that weíre being inauthentic in fulfilling these roles--unfaithful to our true inner self. We may worry, too, that others perceive that weíre being less than genuine.

Impostor fears can prompt us to opt out of positions for which we are in fact well-qualified. They may also discourage us from pursuing opportunities that fit us well.

6. An excessive concern with owning our own life. Another reason we may resist success illustrates one of the most debilitating ways our psyche can function. We may feel uneasy achieving a goal because we know others want us to have this victory. Our need for control is so great that we want to avoid any semblance of living out othersí expectations--even positive ones. We donít want to give anyone the gratification of rejoicing in our success, or of thinking they helped us by cheering us on.

Itís not unusual, for instance, for a grown son or daughter to choose a career different from the one their parents wish them to enter, even if they otherwise would most prefer this option.

When our concern with owning our life is normal and healthy, we naturally wish to act against othersí negative expectations. When we feel compelled to act against their positive expectations, it shows that weíve taken the need to own our life to a higher level. At this point, we may well feel angst about succeeding in any area at all, for itís difficult to find any worthy goal that at least some people are not rooting for us to achieve.

7. Fear of increased responsibility and losing freedom. There is also a reason we can fear success that is not complicated or difficult to understand at all. We worry that the increased responsibilities that will result from achieving our goal will be too burdensome. While this fear is sometimes justified, it often amounts to focusing too greatly on the challenges rather than the benefits of achieving a dream.

Success typically reduces our freedom in certain ways, and that thought can also be unsettling. We donít like having our options reduced in any area, and we exhilarate in the freedom of choice we enjoy. The fear of losing freedom is the most common reason people who dearly want to be married still opt out of good opportunities. Itís also why many fail to pursue golden opportunities in other areas of life.

Turning the Tide

While there are other reasons we may fear success, these are some of the major ones. They are enough to show that we are complex creatures psychologically, and may desire success greatly on one level, yet resist it on another. Even if we arenít susceptible at most of these points, we may still be vulnerable at one or more of them, to the point that we sabotage good opportunities, or fail to benefit from our victories as fully as we should.

The good news is that we can fight back. We can change self-defeating assumptions, and even reverse tendencies that thwart our dreams.

If you are uncomfortable with success, can you clarify why? Consider the possible reasons Iíve suggested, and see if any of these shoes fit. Are there certain outlooks or assumptions you can clearly identify that diminish your zeal to succeed? Write them down. Be as specific as you can.

Perhaps you avoid success for reasons you canít clearly specify. You only know that you fall into the same self-defeating behavior time and again, but donít understand why. If so, then I urge you to seek the help of a professional counselor. Youíre dealing with a formidable problem that you are unlikely to conquer on your own. With a counselorís direction, you can identify experiences in your background that have programmed you to instinctively court failure rather than success. Most important, you can determine steps that will change the pattern, and allow you to begin following your star more effectively.

Paradigm Shifts Regarding Success

You may be only too aware of why you dread success. Certain conscious assumptions discourage you. You may not need professional counseling to untangle deep-seated complexes. You do need to develop more healthy thinking about success and to revise perspectives that are working against you. Here are some outlooks that can help.

Godís will and my success. The belief that God may punish us for succeeding usually springs from humility that to some extent is commendable. As Christians weíre only too aware that our motives, even in pursuing the most noble goal, at best are mixed. Weíre only likely to become more conscious of unhealthy motives as we grow in Christ--a function of coming closer to his light and being exposed by it. Recognizing that our motives are less than perfect may lead us to fear Godís retribution if we succeed.

Scripture also stresses that we shouldnít cherish grandiose ideas about ourselves (Rom 12:3, Phil 2:3), and warns us constantly to be on guard against any affection in life becoming an idol.

Yet failure, in its own strange way, can become an idol to us--every bit as greatly as success can. And our motives in courting failure can be just as unhealthy as they might be in chasing some totally selfish goal.

In pursuing any dream, we should strive to keep our relationship with Christ strong, and pray earnestly that God will give us motives honoring to Christ. Yet, as Paul reminds us graphically in Romans 7, we can never rid ourselves fully of selfish intentions this side of eternity. If we let ourselves be obsessed with motives, weíll become convinced weíre unworthy of accomplishing any goal, and be paralyzed from taking any action.

Our life is of far greater benefit to others--and to the mission of Christ--when we focus the bulk of our energy not upon dealing with motives, but upon doing what will best realize our potential for Christ. Consider that Paul, in his extensive teaching on spiritual gifts, never tells believers to hold back from using their gifts because of imperfect motives. His consistent counsel is that we should be about the business of employing our gifts for the benefit of others. He surely recognized that our motives would sometimes be less than ideal in this process.

Scripture not only teaches that God gives us potential and golden opportunities for realizing it, but that he wants us to rejoice in our successes. The Israelites were instructed to set aside a tithe of their produce which they were to eat before the Lord in a spirit of celebration (Deut 12:5-14, 18; 14:22-27). They were commanded to rejoice over what God had enabled them to accomplish! The implication is that God takes joy in our accomplishments and wishes to rejoice with us in our victories.

Godís desire is not that we deny our personal dreams, but that we pursue them in companionship with him. He wants us to view our personal pursuits as odysseys that we travel with him--as adventures where we seek his guidance, strength and provision, then rejoice with him in our successes. When we imagine God as being fundamentally against our succeeding, weíre thinking of him as our adversary rather than our friend. Nothing helps more to combat our anxieties about success than to appreciate God as our companion who is cheering us on as we move toward our goals.

Will others be hurt by my succeeding? In developing a healthy outlook on success, we also need to come to terms with concerns about how others may react to our success. The perception that others donít want us to succeed sometimes has basis. But remember that God has made human nature remarkably resilient. We can bear the disappointment of lost affection if something positive takes its place. It can be a worthwhile tradeoff to let go of some affirmation in order to experience the joy of using our gifts more fully. And as we take steps of growth, we best position ourselves to develop new friendships. In the long run weíre happier in relationships with those who desire Godís best for us than with those who insist we conform to their still-life pictures.

But what about the fear that our success will dishearten our parents or others who are discouraged about their own failures? The concern not to hurt others by outshining them can spring from compassion, respect, and a genuine desire to promote their welfare. Still, it is always a case of assuming responsibility that isnít properly ours, and indicates weíve been drawn into a co-dependent mentality. Following Christ means learning not only to trust our own life into his hands, but othersí lives as well.

If my success causes my parents or anyone else to feel dejected, they are basing their self-worth on the wrong factors to begin with. They need to grow, rather than for me to adjust my plans to their expectations. They will only be fulfilled when they accept Godís unique plan for their own life and learn to make the best of their own opportunities. Until they stop measuring their happiness against othersí successes and failures, they are doomed to stay frustrated. Iím not helping them change by accommodating their unhealthy outlook but am causing it to become more deeply ingrained. Iíll best serve them by refusing to let their attitude dampen my zeal to succeed. I should remember, too, that beyond these people, Christ calls me to love many others who will benefit from my success, for it will better equip me to serve their needs.

Living out othersí positive expectations. But what if my determination to own my life is so great that Iím ruffled even by the thought of fulfilling othersí positive expectations? I need to begin by recognizing the sheer futility of my position. Since itís unlikely Iíll accomplish any worthwhile goal without pleasing at least some people in the process, Iím effectively blocking myself from achieving any personal dream.

I also need to redefine what it means to own my own life. Rather than think, "I will avoid living out othersí expectations at any cost," I should think, "I am going to realize my dreams regardless of what anyone thinks. If someone is gratified by my victory, or believes their well-wishes have helped me succeed, let them think whatever they want. I will not let anyoneís expectations--positive or negative--deter me from doing what is right for me."

I should pray also that God will help me keep the urge to own my life within reasonable bounds. A moderate desire to own our life serves us much better than an extreme one.

Dealing with impostor feelings. We may also have to deal with feelings of fraudulence related to a dream weíve achieved or want to pursue. We should remember that throughout Scripture God takes individuals and, in spite of many inadequacies, uses them in highly effective ways.

The Bible is also flooded with examples of individuals who fulfilled Godís will by taking on various roles that probably did not seem fully natural to them at first, and in some cases may never have. Moses and Jeremiah were both frightened of public speaking (Ex 4:10-13, Jer 1:6; terrified is probably the better word in Mosesí case). Gideon suffered from such low self-esteem that he was incredulous at the angelís assertion that he was the right man to lead Israelís army against Midian (Judg 6:15). We infer from the various times that Paul exhorted Timothy not to be afraid, to rekindle his gift or to apply himself to his pastoral task, that Timothy was timid in his pastoral identity, and may well have suffered some impostor feelings--this in spite of the fact that he is set forth as the prototype of a good pastor in the New Testament! (1 Tim 4:12, 4:14-15, 5:23; 2 Tim 1:7, 1:8; cp. 1 Cor 16:10.)

We may take comfort in knowing that following Godís will at times requires that we assume new roles which donít immediately feel natural to us, and that we live with them until they become part of our personality.

Bearing the burden. We may also worry that success will saddle us with responsibility too great for us to handle. This fear is sometimes justified, and guards us against taking on problems we have no business assuming. Yet itís often unreasonable, and may hold us back from otherwise welcome opportunities to improve our life.

How, then, can we determine whether our apprehensions about new responsibilities being too burdensome are reasonable? We should look honestly at whether our concern is that success will bring with it too much responsibility, or whether weíre worried that the responsibility will be too challenging for us psychologically. Will my time and energy be so taxed, for instance, that my family life or other important commitments are jeopardized? If so, then I need to address the problem carefully. Is it possible to delegate responsibility, to the extent that Iím able to accomplish more with the same physical output? Often the answer is yes. If itís clear that the answer is no, then I should hold back from pursuing this new opportunity until Iím certain I can handle it within the limits of the physical energy God has given me.

Often, though, our real concern is whether we can handle the psychological strain of new responsibility, which otherwise fits fine within the limits of our time and energy. A job that Iím offered requires public speaking, for instance, and I obsess about caving into stage fright. In this case, I should strive to think of this new opportunity as a beneficial step of faith. I should recall past occasions where God brought me over major hurdles, and gave me strength under fire that I thought wasnít possible for me. I should remind myself constantly that the same God who supported me in the past will hold me up in my present challenge. I have a remarkable opportunity for growing--both in faith and in personal skill.

Such thinking is especially important when the opportunity before us is one we otherwise truly welcome.

A tradeoff worth making. What often worries us most about taking on new responsibility isnít that it will be too burdensome or psychologically challenging, but that we will lose freedom by committing to it. Regardless how strongly we desire the benefits of an opportunity before us, choosing it means forsaking the possibility of pursuing other options. Some people dwell so much on the freedom theyíll lose by embracing even a cherished dream that they conclude the tradeoff isnít worth it.

It helps to recognize that, as humans, we instinctively invest greater emotion in losses than we do in gains of equal value. The sorrow we feel over losing $1,000 is greater than the pleasure we experience over winning $1,000. Our devastation in losing a friendship is stronger than our joy in gaining a new friendship. This tendency to focus on losses--which psychologists term "loss aversion"--can incline us to dwell so greatly on what we have to give up to achieve a dream, that success feels more like failure.

The best way to fight this tendency is to make a determined effort to concentrate on the benefits of moving forward. The man who feels week-kneed about committing to a welcome opportunity for marriage, for instance, should focus as fully as he can upon the improvements marriage will bring to his life. He may find it helpful to take a personal retreat, where he dwells on these benefits, and gives God an unhindered opportunity to deepen his passion for entering marriage.

Meditating on the benefits of taking any step of faith will help us break the pull of loss-aversion and find the courage to proceed toward our dream.
   

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Further help:
I discuss the fear of success in much greater detail, and offer counsel for overcoming it, in several of my books, including The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment (much of the book focuses on this problem), Should I Get Married? (the revised edition includes expanded material on conquering the fear of commitment in relationships), and Overcoming Shyness (chapter fifteen deals with overcoming impostor fears). 

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Copyright 2001 M. Blaine Smith.
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