May 15, 2002
Facing Your
Fears of Success

And Finding the Courage
To Let Your Light Shine
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This article is adapted from Blaine's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions.

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When I was working on my first book, Knowing God's Will, I labored under the typical apprehensions of a writer--that I might never finish the project, or fail to find a suitable publisher if I did. But while the fear of failing was very real, I was also troubled at times with thoughts of what might happen if I did succeed. Writing a book means casting something of your private life and thought before the public, and that can be scary. Would friends who liked me in my present role still like me in my new one? And did God himself really want me to succeed? Perhaps I didn't deserve to have a published book. Perhaps he would punish me for seeking this sort of accomplishment.

Increasingly, I've come to realize that the uneasiness which I felt wasn't unusual, nor just the fate of those who write, but the experience of many in every area of pursuit. Psychologists have shown considerable interest in this area of conflict during the last several decades, which they've dubbed "the fear of success." As specialists in the field never tire in pointing out, the fear of success is not the same as the fear of failure, not just a misstatement of the latter. The fear of failure is the apprehension that you'll never reach a goal. The fear of success is that you will reach it but suffer disaster as a result. While the two fears are related in many obvious ways, they are distinct.

Specialists point out too, with very good basis, that while some are paralyzed with the fear of success, everyone suffers from it to at least some degree. The fear is often unconscious, coming out in dreams and otherwise inexplicable acts of self-sabotage. As an extreme example, I know a woman who bailed out of a four-year college program only two weeks before graduation. Although her grades were fine and only a few assignments remained to earn the degree, she complained that she had lost interest and didn't see any purpose in finishing. This was clearly the fear of success at work.

A Special Problem for Christians

I'm certain, too, that we as Christians are more prone to this fear than most people. Christian teaching often fails to balance biblical perspectives on the desires of the flesh and self-denial with the positive role of motivation and accomplishment in the Christian life. The result is a myriad of success-phobics among modern Christians. Many Christians are convinced that God doesn't wish them to enjoy significant success. There seems to be more nobility and humility in failure--and much less hazard to your relationship with Christ!

Scripture does have plenty to say about the danger of success becoming an idol. Yet it speaks just as often about the positive side of success and the importance of using our gifts constructively for God's glory. "Whatever he does prospers," the first psalm declares of the godly person (v. 3). God has ordained each of our lives to certain accomplishment. Yet the fear of success can hold us back from God's best as greatly as any other inhibition or sin.

Peter's Example

We find an enlightening example of the fear of success in one of the early encounters that Peter and his friends had with Jesus, described in Luke 5:1-11. They had fished all night but caught nothing. Jesus tells them to drop their nets once again, and this time their catch is so great that they can scarcely haul it ashore. Peter then declares to Jesus, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (v. 8).

We would have expected Peter and his friends to be elated over their unexpected triumph. They would surely want Jesus to give them this success again and again.

Instead, they were taken drastically off guard by this sudden, inexplicable achievement. Having grown accustomed to failure, success was a jolt to their comfort zone. They felt morbidly unworthy of it. They surely feared that as Jesus came to know them better, he would judge them fraudulent and use this same miraculous power to destroy them.

Jesus, in magnanimous compassion and grace, ignored Peter's self-defeating request (thank God he so often ignores our misguided prayers!). He assured Peter and his friends that he intended more success for them, and on a more meaningful level. "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men," Jesus declared (v. 10). His response clearly calmed the disciples' fears. They were so relieved to find he had positive intentions for them that "they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him" (v. 11).

Though I've never heard it expressed this way, I'm certain that one of Jesus' greatest miracles of healing was giving his early followers victory over their fears of success. He inspired within them the spiritual and psychological strength to bound beyond the inertia of their routine existences into the dynamic life of following him. In Peter the change was nothing short of revolutionary. On the day of Pentecost this man who had been plagued with inferiority stood up and forcefully addressed the multitude, convincing many to repent and follow Christ. Later, even the Jewish authorities were astonished "when they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men" (Acts 4:13).

If you're fearful of success, take heart. You're not alone. This is a common area of struggle for many. Take heart, too, that Christ understands your struggle. As surely as he has saved you, he can give you grace to overcome this fear and realize your full potential for him.

Characteristics of the Fear of Success

Let's look more closely as what the fear of success involves. There are certain common apprehensions that many experience in anticipation of reaching a goal.

 The fear of punishment from God. Some fear that God won't be pleased if they succeed in reaching a long-cherished goal. He knows they aren't worthy of this success. It will mean experiencing more pleasure and happiness than they're entitled to in this life. Reaching the goal will make them more competitive with God, more like God. He won't like it. He will punish them.

 The fear of losing the affection of others. Another common fear is that others will love you less if you reach your goal. This concern often originates in childhood. If, for instance, your parents constantly criticized you and belittled your chances of succeeding at anything, you may feel uncomfortable now with defying their negative expectations. Your success would be a blow to their esteem, a snub at their judgment. You worry about the effect of wounding their pride--would they think less of you or withdraw their affection?

 The fear of increased responsibility. Many worry also about success bringing greater responsibility into their life. Of course, this fear isn't without justification. Success usually does bring additional responsibility, and some concern about not being taxed beyond our limits is healthy. Yet we can also carry an unreasonable fear of not being up to bearing responsibility that Christ will enable us to assume.

On another level, we can dread the increased sense of significance that will come with our achievement and the new responsibilities involved. We may fear that we're not up to handling it emotionally. Change in our self-concept is always unnerving--even positive change. We may feel squeamish or embarrassed about taking on responsibility that to us signals a boost in status.

 The fear of insignificance. At the same time we can be hampered by a rather different concern--that what we accomplish may be of no ultimate significance to human life anyway. Why bother to make the effort? So what if I slave to put myself through college and pull top grades as an economics major? So what if I land a good position with a corporation? What will I achieve that someone else couldn't accomplish just as well?

What difference will it make if we have a second child? Billions of children have come into existence and died throughout history without making any impact on the world.

We are complex psychological creatures and often experience conflicting fears at the same time. One moment the thought of completing a goal unsettles us because we fear it will elevate us to more importance than we deserve. The next moment we're sapped by the thought that even if we succeed, our achievement won't dent the world's problems.

Perspectives for Overcoming The Fear of Success

Since the anticipation of success can fill us with fears of both significance and insignificance, we need to learn to hold onto two perspectives at once. On the one hand, we should remind ourselves that Christ has a distinctive plan for our life. He has given us a combination of gifts and opportunities as unique from anyone else's as our fingerprints. The work we do may seem futile in a purely objective sense. Yes, we may take a job that could easily be filled by someone else. Still, our personality and mix of gifts will allow us to relate to certain people for Christ within our work in ways no one else is as well-equipped to do. And in the mystery of God's providence we'll be there at just the right moment to meet certain needs of people which otherwise would go unheeded.

But a sense of futility can keep us from taking the steps so critical to keeping pace with his will. We must remind ourselves constantly that God's plan for us is personally designed so that the work we accomplish will contribute significantly to what Christ is doing to meet people's needs. God intends our life as a matchless gift to people. Others will be deprived of important benefits if we fail to act.

At the same time we should remind ourselves that ultimately our work is only one small part of the picture of all that God is doing. We'll make plenty of mistakes, and the world won't expire as a result! Ultimately the work is God's, anyway, and we're forever in danger of taking ourselves too seriously.

In Overcoming the Fear of Success, psychologist Martha Friedman shares her own experience with the problem as a doctoral candidate and how she solved it:

"I was on the verge of becoming a Ph.D. dropout when a wise psychologist said to me, 'Why such a fuss? Nobody's going to read it anyway; it'll just gather dust on some college library shelf, and it'll certainly never be published. If you're meant to do important work, you'll do it after you get out of school.'

"I stopped obsessing, took a month off from my jobs, and finished my dissertation. While it's admittedly no major contribution to world science, it was a major contribution to my psyche. I had finished something important to me. It
was . . . a matter of not magnifying what I was trying to accomplish."

She adds, "Minimizing the importance of a goal is an excellent way to reach that goal."*

We each need to work at achieving a healthy balance in the way we look at our work. We need to know that what we do is significant; yet we're always in danger of taking ourselves too seriously in the midst of it all. In Christ we can achieve this balance, for we can know that while our work is important in his mission to earth, he doesn't ultimately depend upon us but graciously uses our availability. With this in mind, we can serve in a spirit of joyous victory, not defeat.

But What Will Others Think?

In developing a healthy outlook on success, we also need to come to terms with our concern about how others will react to our success. The perception that others don't want us to succeed sometimes has basis. People don't always like it when we change. They may withdraw their affection. But we should remember that God has made human nature remarkably resilient. We can bear the disappointment of lost affection if something positive takes its place. It can be a worthwhile tradeoff to let go of some affirmation in order to experience the joy of using our gifts more fully. And as we take steps of growth we best position ourselves to develop new friendships. In the long run we're happier in relationships with those who desire God's best for us than with those who insist we conform to their still-life pictures.

Practical Steps

There are also some important practical steps we can take to manage our anxieties about success.

1. The role of prayer. We should never forget the value of our quiet-time as a place where our fears can be confronted and overcome. It's greatly beneficial to take generous time for meditation--both to dwell on God's grace and provision for our life, and to stare our fears in the face and recognize them for the irrational apprehensions they so often are. We should remind ourselves that God has put us on earth for the sake of certain accomplishment; we're not fighting him by moving toward our goals, but cooperating with him, if indeed these are ones that he wants us to pursue.

This brings us back to the importance of establishing our priorities and daily schedule during our devotional time, the point we stressed in session three. When I've resolved in prayer that I should spend my time in a certain way during the day, I'm able to go forth with the confidence that I'm responding to God's leading and not just my own impulse. The conviction of God's call, more than any factor, strengthens our motivation and quells our fears of both failure and success.

2. Help from our friends. God's healing from our fears so often comes, in part, through the encouragement of friends, counselors, and those in our support groups. What makes the fear of success so difficult for many is the mistaken perception that they alone suffer from it. It's wonderfully therapeutic to find just how universal the problem actually is. Seek relationships and, if possible, a support group, where you can be straightforward in sharing your apprehensions of success. You'll probably be amazed to find that others have the same concerns. Pray for each other and encourage each other as you move forward. The renewed confidence that comes from this sort of interaction can be remarkable.

If your fears of success have their roots in childhood trauma, I would encourage you also to seek the help of a trained counselor. Take advantage of all the help you can get and, especially, of the best help available.

3. Manage the benefits of success. Martha Friedman recommends that those who experience success shouldn't try to appropriate its benefits all at once. It takes time for our psyche to adapt to change, even when it is most welcome. We need to be realistic about our own adjustment process and not make sudden drastic changes in our standard of living merely because our financial condition now allows it. The one who receives a large salary increase may be happier resisting the urge to immediately buy a new home but making some improvements in his present one instead.

As Christians we're well-schooled in the importance of not piling up riches on earth but using our material benefits to help those in need. Friedman's point adds a further incentive for keeping our lifestyle within reasonable bounds. Doing so not only makes good sense in light of our responsibility to the world but psychologically. Not that it's wrong for Christians to enjoy the benefits of success. Scripture extols the value of rejoicing in our achievements and enjoying the results of our work. The point is simply that balance is needed. We should remember, too, that God has created us to find our greatest joy not in hoarding resources but in sharing them.

4. Keep the wheels in motion. Someone once asked Albert Einstein how he was able to cope with his remarkable notoriety. He replied that he dealt with it by continuing to work and pursue new goals. He didn't dwell on his success but kept his mind actively involved in new pursuits.

The motivation of Christ is experienced most fully when our lives are in motion--not frantic, obsessive motion, but prudent, natural motion toward goals that we've prayerfully resolved Christ wants us to pursue. It's through this movement that our fears are transcended and we find the courage to become the person Christ has created us to be. And it's within this movement that we discover most completely and convincingly the truth of the biblical promise that in His joy is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

Give your attention to using the gifts Christ has given you, and to moving toward the goals that he helps you to establish. Keeping your life in motion will help greatly to allow the Lord to move you beyond your fears of success, and into those accomplishments that reflect his best for your life.

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This article is adapted and condensed from chapters 4 and 5 of Blaine Smith's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail.

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