Are You Afraid of Success?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of god. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of god that is within us. It's not just in some of us it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

 - Marianne Williamson



Spring is upon us and while it may be hard to imagine a world without snow and frigid temperatures, it is indeed on the way! I spent these last five months under the cover of snow. Warmly nestled in my house, resting, contemplating, processing, evaluating, learning and pulling together my creation. You know I like to talk in seasons, and as I prepared the soil in fall, planted bulbs and seeds, I can hardly wait now for them to make their way through the ground as it thaws. The same goes with our creations. There is a time for preparing, a time for planting, and a time for nurturing the growth. We are about to enter into the latter.

Transition, the time between the seasons, also known as expansion, always brings deep unrest and discomfort. If you are like me, preparing to emerge into the world your values, deep beliefs, your Essential Truth, held out on a platter for all the world to see and deconstruct, you may be experiencing a whole lot of fear.

Whenever I ask my clients “Are you afraid of failure?”, everyone responds with “ughm yeah?!”

Of course we are. Nobody wants to try and then fail under the gaze of the world. However, if I ask people “Are you afraid of success?” I get a lot of strange looks. After all, isn’t the whole point of creating something new or growing a business to be successful? That’s why we’re trying so hard, right?

As it so happens, my friend and co-writer Brittany is experiencing expansion right now. These are all her words (based on the work from her undergrad on this very subject!). Brittany wants to show you what fear of success LOOKS like.

It's such a strange moment to realize you're afraid of being good at something. I know this well, and it's one of my biggest struggles.

The more I've tried to address this part of me, the part that self-sabotages right when the going gets good, the more I've looked to the past to understand myself.

Women (and this is a gross generalization, but I often find it to be true), are taught to be small. Back in the days of society training, which stretched all the way into the 20th century, women were educated within very tight constraints– we were to be accomplished and intelligent, but not too accomplished and intelligent. We were meant to be peacekeepers between bickering men. We were meant to keep the conversation light, but stimulating, by asking questions we probably knew the answers to, pretending to learn but retain a sense of naivety in all that we did.

We were meant to be witty, funny, helpful, obedient. Essentially, we were the entertainment, and were present to make life easier and more pleasant for other people. A bad woman was very clearly defined, and we see such characters appear in literature over and over again: Opinionated, sharp, controversial, wild, overly passionate, determined, not easy to laugh, speaking of her issues with the current state of the world, defending her values, dreaming of more and (heaven forbid) acting on those dreams, even if was just to marry someone outside her station.

We haven’t entirely grown out of our training– far from it. It shows up in the well-meant advice we receive and rebuffs we hear. Every woman I talk to has some story about playing it small, whether it’s attributing her wisdom and knowledge onto another source so it sounds more meaningful (“I read somewhere once that…”), giving other people credit for work she's done to keep the waters smooth in the workplace, or even putting herself in the line of fire for something she didn't do. Sometimes we play it small as a strategy… we learn early that nothing will get done if we’re combative or controversial, so we find subtle ways to make an impression or maneuver a situation to get the results we want.

There’s another side of playing it small. For many women, we’ve learned that if we play it BIG and WILD and FULL, there are consequences. People stop talking to us. They say things behind our backs (there are many words for women who step outside their box). Even worse, people jump on our success to use it for their own means. I recall a friend of mine years ago telling me she was pretending she wasn’t a great chef to her new boyfriend, because the last one had cottoned onto her love of cooking and expected her to make delicious food for him all the time. If we do succeed, but we’re very much tuned to always saying yes to people, how will we control our own journey and learn how to say no? Success is not an easy road.

If we’re stuck in this head space, in the place where experience has taught us it’s crucial to defer and to be careful and strategic with every step we take, and to take everyone else into account first, how will we ever bust out and play it large? Yes, fear of failure is obvious, but fear of success, I would argue, is deeper and more abstract. I, for one, struggle to picture what success even looks like. After a life of dreaming and wondering, what the heck will I do when I reach the mountain top and there’s nowhere else to climb? What does this potential dream life REALLY look like, feel like? (To find out, I Google this to find out what other people think a good life is). How can I define what a good life means for me when I have a thousand voices telling me what it's supposed to look like? Who will I lose along the way? What demands will be made of me that I will have to address?

The last piece of playing it small is a result of all the above: Feeling Not Enough. This is a huge one for me, and I think for many women as we step into the great unknown. After all, who died and made me good enough to say these things, even just in this blog? Other people have already done what I'm trying to do, and said what I'm trying to put into words. Other people have created art, written novels, started dog grooming salons, made great art, and found new ways to inspire. So, who am I to think I’m even remotely skilled and intelligent enough, unique enough, to not only follow in their footsteps, but to make what they’ve made… better?

It's funny how we defend ourselves against what we see as a lack of growth. On my part, I defend myself against my own discouragement by thinking "I'm just the kind of person who gets bored and needs to move onto different things." Really, the truth is that I've never believed it's ok to be too happy or too functional. The moment I get ok at something, I bolt onto something I'm kind of shitty at and start from square one. It's my comfy place. This makes me play it small ALL THE TIME. However, I am heartened. With awareness comes growth, true growth, and a true exploration of my own capacity to create, unencumbered by fear and others' opinions. I will continue onwards, inspired and bolstered by wonderful women around me on the same journey."

If any of this sounds familiar, I’m here to tell you two things: First, you are not alone. Second, this is perfectly normal. Discomfort and fear isn’t a sign of weakness or making a bad choice. It is your ego’s job to protect you, and one way it knows how to keep you safe is to hold you within what you already know, where you can predict the outcome. But that is not how we grow, is it? When a plant breaks through the ground, it doesn’t know what the conditions for growth are going to be like this season. Will there be enough water? Sunlight? Nutrients? And, somehow, it just does what it has to do - grow toward the sunlight - with the resources it has available. Luckily, we have more control over our environment than this plant does.

Thumbing through my journal to this time last year, I find pages upon pages about feelings of not good enough and struggles about value and contribution. Physically, those feelings used to manifest in my body by literally taking my breath away. Anxiety would constrict my throat and leave me feeling exhausted.

Kerry Parsons, my coach and mentor, told me: “You can’t bring all of you forward when you are muddled up in value and contribution.” I can’t offer value to others when I am using it to fix my feelings around it. We often treat ourselves horribly in moments of fear, berating ourselves for even trying while yelling at ourselves like army bootcamp trainers to get the hell up. Kerry has a different view. “Take Yvonne by the hand and take care of her”, she told me. “Quiet those voices but don’t override them. Sit with her and comfort her."

I bring up Kerry for several reasons. In my journal I express how great it is to have her as support in just about every entry. It turns out that the bigger the transformation, the more the ego stands on guard, ready to lock the gates. That is when “willpower’ alone isn’t enough to see us through. And it takes way too much precious energy and time to heal and push forward - alone.  

Perhaps some of you are mothers, and you can relate to what I am saying through your pregnancy and birth. The body prepares for birth by tightening and relaxing, aka, through contractions. A process triggers the pituitary gland to release oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates an increase contraction of the uterus and the ejection of the milk, all vital to the successful delivery/birth of the baby.

We too contract before the “birth” of our creation (businesses). This contraction is our ego wanting to keep us safe. That’s its job. We need support along the way to comfort and protect the tender and fragile pieces of our creations.

If this post has made you realize you might be self-sabotaging and playing it small to stay safe, I urge you to reach out to someone. I know you belief that you need to do it all by yourself, that getting support is weakness and then you have to share the spotlight, right? WRONG! the real truth is that we need someone in our corner. Someone to help us water and nurture this fragile, tender dream. Someone to be the voice of reason during your endless self doubt.

If you're not sure what your ego is saying, I'll leave you with some clues:

I’m not quite ready to take action yet, so I’m going to spend the next few weeks building and planning.

I need to run through this one more time to get it right before showing anyone.

I know my friend won’t be happy to learn that my business goes against her values. I wonder if there’s a way I can market my business so that she doesn’t see it?

Too many things are going to go wrong.

What if I run out of money? What if this doesn't turn out to be my dream? What if I'm not good at it? Better to stay here.


Do you resonate with a fear of success? Please share your experiences with fear of failure and success below! We would love to hear what you have to say.

Yvonne WinklerComment