Who the Hell Are You? Fears of Success

I’m obsessed with setting and achieving new personal and professional goals right now. After thinking about what I want to do now in life, I’ve figured out some new goals, created a structure to get things done, and enlisted the help of my network. Much to my delight, I found myself taking little steps forward towards my big goals every day. I felt pretty good about my progress. My progress, however, also made me begin to feel suspicious. I wondered when all of the ugly emotional stuff was going to show up again. Fear. Shame. Guilt. Perfectionism. Impostor Syndrome. The usual suspects.

They did appear eventually. Success, it turns out, freaks out a lot of people, including me. I suspect that sometimes we’re not used to feeling like successful people, so when we achieve some success as a result of our own actions, it feels a little weird and unfamiliar. We might be so used to things *not* working out for us (*cough academic job market cough*), that we’re not sure that we can trust the feeling of success. For some of us, failure almost feels more comfortable than success (”Well, I didn’t think I really be able to do X anyways…”) How weird and uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking is it to think about succeeding at something because of your own efforts and then taking all the credit and feeling awesome about it? Yikes.

Fear of success shows up in a lot of different ways. You might feel so enthusiastic and thrilled your new life goals one day and then totally uninterested the next. You might find yourself feeling just bored. Or tired. Or (Hi me!) you find yourself going in a million different directions but you can’t seem to stick with one idea long enough to make it happen. You have 137 projects but can’t finish any of them.

Fear and impostor syndrome sometimes start leading us down the road to self-sabotage. Impostor syndrome makes us fear being exposed as frauds when we try to achieve our goals. If we fail, everyone will know that we’re really just playing at being a competent adult. If you’re making progress on your life goals, impostor syndrome will try to convince you to quit before you’re successful in case someone finds out that you really have no idea what you’re doing. You start making excuses not to stick to your plan. You’re tired. You don’t know how to solve some problems. You’ve had it. You quit. Life feels safer without the risk of being exposed as a failure or a fraud. Misery is unpleasant, but familiar and comfortable.

Maybe, for example, you find yourself trying to start a business after your PhD. You’ve never started a business before. It seems hard. There’s math involved and maybe lawyers. You’re intimidated by other people who casually toss around awful-sounding business jargon (”drill down,”) like they know what they’re talking about. You’ve never started a business before and it seems so mysterious and difficult that you think you should probably just not even bother.

Here is a secret: Most of the time, any actual problem that you face has been solved by someone else in the past. Like, someone’s already figured it out. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, the solution to your problem might be as simple as asking someone you know. And if they don’t know the answer, they probably know somebody who does.

Recently, I decided that I wanted to publish a short book based on my blog. (EEEEEEEEEE!) I fretted about it. How would I find a publisher? Surely finding an interested publisher was beyond my capabilities. Finding someone who knew about publishing might even involve talking to strangers. I wondered aloud on the internet if anyone had ever published a short book like what I had in mind. Et voila! A friend of mine responded that she could put me in touch with some publishing people.

Oh. Well, that was simple.

You just have to keep taking the next tiny steps forward and mitigate fear and anxiety where you can. Maybe your next step forward involves calling someone you don’t know on the phone to ask some questions. (Let’s up the stakes: maybe its a well-known person? A famous person?) You’re freaking out at the very idea of talking to them. So maybe you prepare a little bit. Maybe you start by following them on Twitter or find them on LinkedIn. Maybe you make a list of questions to ask that person. Maybe you rehearse what you’re going to say. Maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows that person and you get an introduction on Facebook. Maybe you send an email first to say hi and let the person know why you want to talk to them. Once you’ve done those things, maybe you feel a lot more ready to make that phone call. And then maybe you dial them up and say hi. And then you find yourself having a conversation with a nice person like the competent, courageous person you are. Problem solved.

Shame shows up when you start taking steps towards what you want. Shame helpfully talks you into asking yourself who the hell you think you are to even dare pursue your dreams. Planning goals is fun (you get to buy office supplies!), but once you get to the actual doing and going for the thing that you really want, shame make you start wondering if you even deserve to have nice things. You’re pretty sure that success is meant for other people. If you do achieve anything great, you feel like the accolades are going to the wrong person. Me? Who am I to have what I really want? You’re this imperfect person and your flaws seem so egregious that you convince yourself that you probably don’t deserve kind words, acclaim, or even a modicum of success. In fact, you probably don’t deserve anything above a miserable desk job in which you make spreadsheets all day about things you don’t care about. Who the hell are you to be trying to do something interesting with your life? Why can’t you just be happy with what you have and keep your head down and stop causing problems with all of this nonsense about dreams and goals which are clearly meant for other people.

And on and on.

Shame is emotional problem, not an actual roadblock that needs solving. Shame doesn’t have a solid solution, but instead requires empathy and connection. When you’ve got an emotional problem, you mostly just need people to listen to you talk about it for a little bit. You need some self-compassion, and your community. You need all of those great people in your life who will listen, sigh, and say, “Me too.” Connect with people you love who love you because you’re a person worthy of love and even success.

So here’s the point. Yes, achieving goals is really hard sometimes. Success does often feel uncomfortable and make us wonder if we deserve it. Most people never try to chase their dreams because they’re scared. You’re scared too and its totally okay and normal to be scared. But being scared doesn’t mean that you have to be paralyzed or have to jettison your dreams for the safe and miserable comfort of your day job. The emotional crap in our lives remains and shows up periodically. It’s presence doesn’t have to stop you from being the person you want to be or doing what you want. Solve the problems that can be solved, acknowledge the emotions that show up, and keep moving forward. That’s success.

Photo: Daniels and Fisher Tower, Denver.