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; thatâ€™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 Iâ€™d experienced what I now less-than-lovingly refer to as â€œwork terrors.â€ In fact, itâ€™s a phenomenon Iâ€™d become all too accustomed to; maybe that was the problem. Maybe Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve struggled with this ever-present fear that has absolutely no basis in reality. I canâ€™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 - thatâ€™s on a good day. On a bad day, I imagine myself a wildly successful author with a bestseller that just wonâ€™t quit. How could that possibly incite panic, you ask? Well, itâ€™s what happens next thatâ€™s so frightening; itâ€™s the expectation to repeat that success that stops me dead in my tracks. What if I canâ€™t? What if I just got lucky the first time around and everyone realizes that Iâ€™m a hack?
Itâ€™s almost as if Iâ€™m gripped by some unseen force compelling me to undermine my abilities, to actually make myself fail. Now, I know what youâ€™re thinking, but youâ€™re wrong. Itâ€™s not that Iâ€™m suddenly overcome with the age-old foe of the creative genius, writerâ€™s block. No, itâ€™s something more than that; deeper seated. Itâ€™s almost as if thereâ€™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 doesnâ€™t exactly inspire rationality. Weâ€™ve all heard of the fear of failure, but my battle seemed to be more with a fear ofâ€¦success. But could there be such a thing? After my episode on the porch, I decided it certainly couldnâ€™t hurt to find out. After all, if Iâ€™m the first person ever to have experienced such a thing, at least Iâ€™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, â€˜who better to allay my fears about the possibility of losing my sanity than those who know and love me?â€™ 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. â€œYouâ€™re crazy,â€ my sister said. Shocked, my first reaction was to quote some passage from Khalil Gibran about the higher meaning of the creative life that Iâ€™m not sure even I understand completely. â€œDonâ€™t get me wrong,â€ she continued as if Iâ€™d never spoken, â€œYouâ€™re brilliant. Itâ€™s just that creative people are all, well, a little looney. Itâ€™s in your genes.â€ AHA! There it was: itâ€™s in my genes, just as Iâ€™d suspected! In a momentary state of euphoric exhilaration, I believed that maybe I had truly found my answer: Iâ€™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 theyâ€™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 â€œWorry-When-the-Wind-Blows Hypochondriac Society.â€ So off to my motherâ€™s I went, pencil in hand, ready to get to the root of the intangible tethers that had held my creativity captive for years. â€œWell, honey, you know that very few people actually make it as writers,â€ she began, â€œItâ€™s very difficult to make a living at it. And when you do get something published, thereâ€™s no guarantee that youâ€™ll ever sell anything again.â€ As I listened intently, it brought to mind a conversation Iâ€™d had with my mother when I was no more than 6 or 7. Iâ€™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. â€œOh honey,â€ she said without so much as a glance, â€œanything you could ever think of has already been thought of.â€ And so ended my illustrious, if short lived, career as an inventor. Iâ€™m pretty sure I similarly saw the death of several other promising career paths before the age of 11. Itâ€™s funny, though, that that conversation hadnâ€™t entered my mind as Iâ€™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 motherâ€™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, Iâ€™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 oneâ€™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 motherâ€™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. â€œExcuse me, but could you please tell me where I can find books on fear,â€ I asked. With a quizzical expression normally reserved for those holding one-way dialogues with invisible friends, the bookseller replied, â€œI think youâ€™ve covered everything weâ€™ve got.â€ Not to be deterred, I responded with characteristic obstinance, â€œWell thereâ€™s got to be something. Do you have any medical journals on hand?â€ â€œThereâ€™s one,â€ she said, â€œbut I donâ€™t think itâ€™s what youâ€™re looking for.â€ â€˜How do you know what Iâ€™m looking for?â€™ I thought, becoming irritated. â€œYouâ€™re a writer, right?â€ she asked after a momentary pause. Eureka! It looked like my stubborn streak was finally paying off. â€œIâ€™m a writer too,â€ 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. â€œYes,â€ I replied tersely, searching my purse for an imaginary mint or pen or other instrument of distraction. â€œI have it too,â€ she said, ignoring my attempts at diversion. Confused, I asked what she meant. â€œFear of success,â€ 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. Iâ€™d found a kindred spirit that day and, equally importantly, Iâ€™d found my answer; I wasnâ€™t alone.
Itâ€™s funny the journeys on which life takes you; it seems the paths we walk twist and turn endlessly until weâ€™re brought to one final place; ourselves. I spent countless hours in innumerable places looking for answers that Iâ€™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 motherâ€™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. Iâ€™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 Iâ€™ve come to, the answer thatâ€™s surfaced, can be summed up in a quote I found along the way; Being brave doesnâ€™t mean youâ€™re not afraid, it just means you do it anyway. Thatâ€™s not to say that Iâ€™ve never again been faced with my old adversary, but at least now my fear has a face; Now I can see that I wasnâ€™t just saddled with bad genes. Every moment in which I pursue my passions, Iâ€™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.
WORLD - AN EDGE IN MY VOICE
Copyright © 2010 Savina Thompson
The Comfort of Failing: Overcoming a Fear of Success
Copyright © 2010 Savina Thompson
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