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The Comfort of Failing: Overcoming a Fear of Success

by Savina Thompson (writer), Los Angeles, December 02, 2006

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A few weeks ago, while casually enjoying a lackadaisical afternoon in the back yard with my furry children, it occurred to me that I really should be inside writing. After all, I had a deadline to meet and had barely scratched the surface on what was supposed to be a 4 page article. It occurred to me, and yet my backside remained firmly planted on the sun-drenched porch. Then the anxiety set in; that’s always a fun ride.

So there I sat, heart pounding, teeth grinding, refusing to do the one thing I knew would make it all stop: write. I wish I could say that it was the first time I’d experienced what I now less-than-lovingly refer to as “work terrors.” In fact, it’s a phenomenon I’d become all too accustomed to; maybe that was the problem. Maybe I’d become so used to these bouts of unexplainable dread that I just began to accept them as part & parcel of every day living.

For years I’ve struggled with this ever-present fear that has absolutely no basis in reality. I can’t put a finger on it, other than to say that, whenever I immerse myself (or even think of immersing myself) in the one thing I love the most, writing, I begin to break out in cold sweats. And God forbid that I actually land a big project; visions of public humiliation and chastisement begin dancing frantically about in my head like a band of punch drunk faeries around a May Pole - that’s on a good day. On a bad day, I imagine myself a wildly successful author with a bestseller that just won’t quit. How could that possibly incite panic, you ask? Well, it’s what happens next that’s so frightening; it’s the expectation to repeat that success that stops me dead in my tracks. What if I can’t? What if I just got lucky the first time around and everyone realizes that I’m a hack?

It’s almost as if I’m gripped by some unseen force compelling me to undermine my abilities, to actually make myself fail. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong. It’s not that I’m suddenly overcome with the age-old foe of the creative genius, writer’s block. No, it’s something more than that; deeper seated. It’s almost as if there’s a trigger coded into my DNA that gets tripped whenever I envision a better future for myself. Dramatic, I know, but you try breaking out in hives every time your fingers graze a keyboard; it doesn’t exactly inspire rationality. We’ve all heard of the fear of failure, but my battle seemed to be more with a fear of…success. But could there be such a thing? After my episode on the porch, I decided it certainly couldn’t hurt to find out. After all, if I’m the first person ever to have experienced such a thing, at least I’ll go down in history for something, right?

My first stop on the hunt for my faceless foe was to those closest to me, the experts on what makes me tick: my friends and family. I figured, ‘who better to allay my fears about the possibility of losing my sanity than those who know and love me?’ Bad idea. Lesson number 1: When embarking on an existential journey of personal discovery, try to resist the temptation to strap yourself down with emotional baggage. “You’re crazy,” my sister said. Shocked, my first reaction was to quote some passage from Khalil Gibran about the higher meaning of the creative life that I’m not sure even I understand completely. “Don’t get me wrong,” she continued as if I’d never spoken, “You’re brilliant. It’s just that creative people are all, well, a little looney. It’s in your genes.” AHA! There it was: it’s in my genes, just as I’d suspected! In a momentary state of euphoric exhilaration, I believed that maybe I had truly found my answer: I’m genetically predisposed to fear anything but mediocrity. It made sense; after all, despite their lofty aspirations and inimitable natural talent, neither of my parents had become a literary scholar or world famous painter as they’d hoped. But then it hit me: every one of my siblings had gone on to become highly regarded and very successful in their fields. Damn.

This left me with just one option: If I wanted to find out the origins and pathos behind my phobia, I had to talk to an expert, a full-fledged, card-holding member of the “Worry-When-the-Wind-Blows Hypochondriac Society.” So off to my mother’s I went, pencil in hand, ready to get to the root of the intangible tethers that had held my creativity captive for years. “Well, honey, you know that very few people actually make it as writers,” she began, “It’s very difficult to make a living at it. And when you do get something published, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever sell anything again.” As I listened intently, it brought to mind a conversation I’d had with my mother when I was no more than 6 or 7. I’d presented her some ridiculous invention that only the mind of a small child could concoct but that I was sure was going to change the course of human history. With a sublime blend of eager anticipation and pride, I laid my invention before my matriarch; queen of my world and the last word on all that was true in the universe. I was convinced that she would take one look and declare it to be a work of pure genius. It seems that, even as a child, I never tired of being wrong, at least when it came to my family. “Oh honey,” she said without so much as a glance, “anything you could ever think of has already been thought of.” And so ended my illustrious, if short lived, career as an inventor. I’m pretty sure I similarly saw the death of several other promising career paths before the age of 11. It’s funny, though, that that conversation hadn’t entered my mind as I’d searched for clues to the cause of my mysterious phobia. But something showed itself to me in that moment; an epiphany, if you will. I had inherited my mother’s fears. All of her doubts became the chains that had bound her to a passionless life of conformity, never allowing her to take the risk of following her dreams. And now they were binding me.

A naturally gifted artist, as a young girl my mom had wanted to become a painter. Growing up, I’d often wondered why she had never pursued her calling and now it was becoming clear; she was afraid of failing at the one thing she loved. She was afraid of being mediocre. I had read about the tendency of children to take on the traits of their parents but had never thought of how one’s fears could be picked up and espoused as well. My formerly faceless foe began to take on a shape, or at least a voice. Maybe in a sense it was in my genes; more than likely, my mother’s doubts had come from her mother and so on for generations.

Now that I knew its cause, it was time for me to find out if my particular phobia even existed according to scientific standards. I decided to do some research. Visiting my local bookstore every few days, I began culling the shelves for every self help title known to man. I became obsessed; The clerk became concerned. I was on a quest. Finally, in the midst of one of my frenzied searches, I approached the counter for guidance. “Excuse me, but could you please tell me where I can find books on fear,” I asked. With a quizzical expression normally reserved for those holding one-way dialogues with invisible friends, the bookseller replied, “I think you’ve covered everything we’ve got.” Not to be deterred, I responded with characteristic obstinance, “Well there’s got to be something. Do you have any medical journals on hand?” “There’s one,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s what you’re looking for.” ‘How do you know what I’m looking for?’ I thought, becoming irritated. “You’re a writer, right?” she asked after a momentary pause. Eureka! It looked like my stubborn streak was finally paying off. “I’m a writer too,” she added. Uh oh. I was in no mood to immerse myself in some pseudo-intellectual battle of wits with a bloodthirsty English major bent on driving me further down my path of self-doubt. “Yes,” I replied tersely, searching my purse for an imaginary mint or pen or other instrument of distraction. “I have it too,” she said, ignoring my attempts at diversion. Confused, I asked what she meant. “Fear of success,” she replied casually. I was in awe. The next 45 minutes are a blur, filled with heartfelt discussion about childhood and dreams and unfulfilled hopes. Tears abounded as a crowd gathered to partake in the spectacle. It was a scene pulled straight from the archives of Oprah. I’d found a kindred spirit that day and, equally importantly, I’d found my answer; I wasn’t alone.

It’s funny the journeys on which life takes you; it seems the paths we walk twist and turn endlessly until we’re brought to one final place; ourselves. I spent countless hours in innumerable places looking for answers that I’d had all along. But maybe I, like most people, needed something outside myself to validate that my experience was real, even normal. Fear is a natural part of being human. In some ways it can even be helpful; it keeps us from running in front of a bus or eating our mother’s corned beef casserole (at least a second time), for example. But when you allow your fears to stop you from pursuing your ambitions, it may be time to take a step back and reevaluate your priorities. Is it worth never succeeding to never fail?

I felt strangely renewed after my conversation with the bookseller that day. I’ve spent many hours since thinking over my search for meaning behind the anxiety that had been my constant companion for more than a decade and what I’ve come to, the answer that’s surfaced, can be summed up in a quote I found along the way; Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, it just means you do it anyway. That’s not to say that I’ve never again been faced with my old adversary, but at least now my fear has a face; Now I can see that I wasn’t just saddled with bad genes. Every moment in which I pursue my passions, I’m battling everyone who ever believed in limitations and boundaries and everyone who ever believed that I would fail, including myself. And from my vantage point, that pretty much describes every great success story throughout history.


About the Writer

Savina Thompson is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on The Comfort of Failing: Overcoming a Fear of Success

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By Stephanie Michele on December 03, 2006 at 06:30 pm
I have it too, thank you so much for this article.
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By Jen on April 11, 2007 at 03:28 pm
Great article...you really nailed it when you said "Is it worth never succeeding to never fail?" I feel exactly as you do, and it kept me from even finishing college for a long time. Life would probably be a lot easier, and filled with far less self doubt, if we simply accepted mediocrity and curled up with Sajak and Trebek every night after moving stacks of paper around a cubicle for 8 hours. For my part...I'll take a steaming cup of self doubt, thank you very much. And while Im not a writer and would never be considered creative in a classical sense you can rest assured that each and every day I walk into the lab and think "They are going to find out that they have made a horrible mistake and send me back to the secretary pool." I just dont let that little demon stop me anymore.
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By Savina Thompson on May 01, 2007 at 11:29 pm
Thank you all for the wonderful comments! This was my first entry here at Broowaha, so the encouragement is greatly appreciated. :) Unfortunately my computer decided to take a sabbatical, but we've recently worked out our differences and are back up and running (grin). I'll definitely post more articles in the coming weeks and I look forward to reading all of your work as well. Thanks again for the support!
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