Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Sweet Peace #8: Fear of Success?


This pine, born in rocks,
will never be the biggest pine in the forest,
but it is a pine and it is beautiful.

Twelve years ago, I wrote: 

In The Seeker's Guide, Elizabeth Lesser states, "I recently heard a great writer say that an essential element in the life of a writer is to have been an outsider in childhood, to have been given the 'gift' of not belonging." 

 Gift?  I never thought of it that way.  Lesson, maybe.  But ... gift?  Those long, endless days of my lonely childhood as the incubator, the essential element, of my writer's soul?

Today, reading this snippet from the past gives me hope … I have made progress. I now know my lonely, outsider childhood was indeed a gift. I’ve learned that everything that happens in our lives creates who we are. Therefore, as Brother Steindl-Rast states, “Everything is a gift!”

Since I’m focused on Sweet Peace this morning, I’m determined to discover how my childhood weaves together with the long-running frustration with body and food. The idea of fear of success appears and I begin to tease it apart, looking for clues and possible tools.

Kendra Cherry, in an article from VeryWellMind, defines fear of success as: 

The fear of success involves being afraid of achievement, often to the point that people will sabotage themselves. … It is important to recognize that people often don't fear the success itself. Instead, their fear is centered on the potential consequences of success.” 

She also states:

“If you suspect that you might be afraid of success, there are some things you can look for. These include:

  • - Being afraid of what will happen if you were in the spotlight
  • - Worrying about leaving people behind if you move forward because of your success
  • - Feeling anxious about acquiring new responsibilities as the result of your success
  • - Being worried that things will just get more complicated than what you can handle
  • - Fearing comments from naysayers or worrying about experiencing other social problems”

Some of those fit; some not so much. Because I spent so much time in books, school was easy. I do remember holding back, staying quiet when I knew the answers, avoiding being in the front of the class, hiding. Somewhere along the way, I developed stage fright and worked on the stage crew rather than trying out for school plays. Was that fear of failure or fear of success?

Cherry continues the article with a list of impacts from the fear of success:

“The fear of success can have a serious negative impact on a person's life. Some of the ways that it might hold you back from getting what you want in life include:

  • Lower life satisfaction: One study found that this fear significantly reduced satisfaction with life.
  • Difficulty pursuing goals: Research also found that a fear of achievement was correlated with difficulties initiating and maintaining behaviors. Because these first steps toward a goal are so difficult, people who fear success may struggle to get started. Or they may find that they start projects and then lack the motivation to finish them.
  • Reduced self-esteem: While achievement is normally associated with strong self-esteem, this may not be the case with those who fear being successful. This may be particularly true for people who also experience imposter syndrome because they don’t attribute their achievement to their skill, knowledge, or hard work.
  • Low expectations: Researchers have also found that people with a fear of success tend to adopt low academic and career goals compared to their abilities.”

Again, a partial fit. The desire to “fit in” created a “square peg in a round hole” type of situation. Rather than change the hole, I believe my main strategy was reshaping the peg (me). 

While the psychology of all of this is still murky, I feel a glimmer of understanding of the mindset that equated success with thinness (and flat waistbands). And, that success would mean stepping out on a bigger stage and being willing to be visible (in my “imperfect” body) … and even more different than I already was. Having an imperfect body was a perfect excuse to not go after stretch goals and to quit projects I thought I wanted.


- When I started writing in high school, I never read any of my work in class or to anyone actually.

- In college I filled notebooks with writings that no one ever saw.

- I blew my freshman scholarship almost deliberately by not studying.

- When my student loan was cancelled after my junior year in college, I didn’t even try to find a way to finance my last year. I just quit, blaming it on wanting to get married.

       - When I started working, I took jobs in accounting rather than even try other fields that interested me far more.

There are many other examples along the way; however, what I’m really interested in is what I’m going to do right now. I am getting close to the end of a project which I think is my best work and something that will be useful to others. I feel the old stirrings about wanting to quit, not feeling up to the task of taking it into the world, wanting to hide.

Cherry recommends therapy (of course), but also offers some tools: among them journaling (in process right here) and reframing thoughts. She asks:

Do you associate success with negative outcomes?  YES

Are you worried about what other people might think?  YES

I realize that part of me would rather finish this project and put it in a drawer rather than take responsibility for it being a failure … or a success. Actually, I know what to do with failure … I’ve done a lot of that. What I don’t know is if I could handle success.

Writing this  … well the thought of publishing this … floods stress and anxiety into my system and I feel it in my arms. It’s like having three cups of strong black coffee, one right after another. I feel shaky and sick. I’m 76 years old. Why can’t I just cower in my comfortable little nest?

“Because that’s not what I came here for,” some part of me answers. Could it be that the peace I’m trying to find is not about food nor body … but about the willingness to be who and whatever I am,  the willingness to be visible in the world?



  1. I'll volunteer to give you a 'swift kick in the butt' when needed and stand on a street corner singing your praises as a writer and an artist. I'm sure others will as well, as we have seen and read your work and know that you deserve all the success that should/will come your way.