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.


Revising My Writing Shame Story

I attended a non-academic conference recently. Unlike academic conferences, this one featured good-natured therapy dogs wandering around and therapeutic yoga sessions. Several of the conference sessions focused on issues of self-care. Because I believe that self-care provides the foundation for a successful writing practice, I thought about what I’d learned and thought about how it could be applied to writing.

Non-writers often think that writers looks easy. They picture writers attending swanky book signings and sipping Merlot while joyfully writing brilliant prose that comes out right the first time.  As the marvelous William Zinsser argued, if writing seems hard, that’s because it is. Even after establishing a solid writing practice, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Some writing days are awesome. An equal or greater number are awful. Bad writing days are sometimes so discouraging that we get stuck. We begin spiraling in shame, sucked downward towards the abyss.

The shame spiral gives us permission to berate ourselves with unhelpful and mean questions. We churn out a stream of negative self-talk disguised as self-discipline. “Why is this happening to me? Why is this so hard? Why can’t I get this piece of writing to work out? Why does this sentence suck so much? Why can’t I do this? WTF?” Why I am not a good writer?” and finally, “Why am I not good enough?”

One of the conference sessions I attended taught us to transform questions like these into more empowering ones. I learned about how these kinds of “Why…?” questions make us feel powerless. They have no good answers and provide no tools to move us forward. Instead of getting our writing unstuck, these kinds of questions mire us deeper in the muck.  

I learned how changing the wording of our unproductive questions can lead to more helpful ones with built-in tools to get us pointed in the right direction again. Choosing better questions leads to better thoughts, better choices, and better actions and potentially better writing. If this sounds like the concept of reframing, it is. I just hadn’t thought about how changing my shame questions into action questions could help me move forward with writing.

Better questions usually begin with “What…” or “How…”. They might include:

  • How can I solve this?
  • What’s a better approach?
  • Is there another way to look at X?
  • How else could I choose to respond to this problem?
  • What can I do to resolve this?
  • What’s most important right now?
  • What do I need right now to succeed?
  • What am I learning?
  • What’s valuable here?
  • What can I give gratitude for in this situation?
  • What are my next steps?

Asking better questions improves the quality of our self-talk. It creates possibility and opens paths for creative problem-solving. They promote critical thinking and a direction forward.

Better questions can also get more powerful when made into statements:

I will choose to look at X (writing problem) as a learning experience to figure out how to resolve Z. I’m giving gratitude right now for A and define my success as B.

I’ve been trying to reformulate shame questions into more productive ones this week. In truth, I wanted to see if it worked or if this was just some more New Age-y positive thinking talk.

In my unscientific study, I picked a writing problem. Lately, my biggest problem has been that I’m struggling to post on my blog as much as I’d like. I have a million of excuses and not a single one is very good. My most common excuse is that I don’t have time, followed by the excuse that I have nothing very worthy to say.

My shame story about not posting on the blog tends to go like this:

“OMG I haven’t posted on my blog in three weeks oops I don’t have any time to write why should I even bother to try now maybe I should just give up why can’t I make myself write a post I don’t have anything to write about why am I not one of those people who are so clever why did I think I should have a blog OMG I’m so irresponsible why can’t I write WHYYYYYYYYYY.”

There wasn’t a chance of getting any writing done with that story on endless replay in my head.

I tried reformatting the shame story with some better language:

“Well, I’ve been slacking on the blog because I feel crunched for time. How am I going to make some time to write a post this week? What are some of the things that I can say no to? I can choose to say no to X,Y, and Z. What’s the most important thing to write about right now? Maybe I can share some things I’ve learned lately? I really am grateful to have the blog, so what are my next steps? Outlining something…?”

And then I was off and writing. Et voila! I wrote the post you’re now reading. Based on my incredibly unscientific study of my own experience, I did find that I felt better about my writing chores when I chucked the shame story for something a little more empowering.

I ain’t saying that positive thinking is the cure for all of our writing woes. Writing, to a large degree, just sucks sometimes. I do, however, think that the quality of the stories that we tell ourselves as writers have great power over our writing lives.

Procrastination: Shame in Disguise

Many writers (this one included) procrastinate. We shove our writing projects, no matter how important, under a towering pile of meaningless stuff. We write email, read the news, catch up on Twitter, and watch kitten videos on YouTube. Somehow all of these things take priority over nurturing our own creative and intellectual passions.

Lots of us assume that we can solve our procrastination through better time management and organization. We make schedules, use timers, and invest time learning the latest software that promises to help us manage our projects with magical algorithms.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those solutions and many of them help people move forward with their writing. However, I think we can’t deal with our penchant for procrastination until we get a grip on underlying issues of shame.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Our actions speak louder than our words. You can tell yourself that your writing is important; however, unless you’re actually writing, your actions tell a different story. Procrastination says that your writing isn’t very important to you. By which, you mean that YOU’RE not very important.  

Procrastination confirms to us all of the bad stories that we tell about ourselves. If you listen closely, many people (self included) have a toxic internal story playing in the background about themselves and their writing abilities. Our stories may be unique and individual, but we often hear them whispered in the ugly voice of shame:

You’re not good enough.

The idea that we’re not good enough cripples our writing ability. It is safer to write nothing than to write something flawed.

As I wrote in this post, procrastination, or the fear of starting, is often just shame, and its handmaiden, perfectionism, in disguise. It’s a double- edged sword, though. Procrastination helps us avoid feelings of shame, but also creates feelings of shame when we don’t write. Feeling shame is downright unpleasant. I, for one, would do almost anything to avoid it, including the kind of self-sabotage that procrastination provides.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We procrastinate and don’t write because we assume that anything we do write won’t be good enough. Then when we don’t write, we confirm that the voice of shame is probably right after all: we’re not good enough to write anything. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents us from being the writers and people we want to be.

So we make choices that confirm our worst stories about ourselves as people and as writers. Our procrastination confirms that we aren’t good enough. Once the voice of shame has convinced us that we’re worthless and people and as writers (so why even bother writing?), then we’re thrown into a cycle of guilt and panic because we’ve got deadlines and haven’t written a thing. Frantic binge writing magnifies our already shitty feelings about ourselves and our writing. Then we get to be angry at ourselves for causing this whole sorry mess in the first place.

Here’s the thing: to deal with this whole messy shame and procrastination cycle, we’ve got to take a deep breath in and start. Write something. Write anything. Just write. When we write, we tell the voice of shame to STFU.

If you’re a procrastinating writer, the cure for procrastination (and shame) is writing.

Writing is an act of telling yourself that you’re good enough as both a writer and a person to write some words. In choosing to write, we are choosing to prioritize ourselves. In this post, I argued that taking care of our writing is an important way of taking care of ourselves as people. Taking time out of our busy days to write signals to our minds and spirits that we, however flawed, are valuable and important. We become important to ourselves.

The act of writing is an act of positive self-affirmation. In a world that’s constantly trying to beat us down and make us feel small, writing is courageous. It is sometimes an incredibly subversive act.

Writing can even be joyful when we realize that attending to our writing means that we’re being brave for ourselves and affirming our own self-worth. Every time I write a blog post, I’m pretty sure that the sky will fall on my head each time I click POST. Somehow, it hasn’t yet.

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you already know what you need to do. Your goal is to make writing, which is really a part of a broader self-care practice, not some special thing that you do every now and then. Writing is something you do daily because you’re worth it.

Photo: Volcán Agua at sunset. Antigua, Guatemala, 2013. Full image available here.