great 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
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
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 century-plus 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Paradigm Shifts Regarding
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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