April 1, 2008
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 working on my first book, Knowing God’s Will, I labored under the typical apprehensions of a writer--that I might not finish the project or find a suitable publisher if I did. But while my fear of failing was significant, I worried as much about what would happen if I succeeded! Writing a book means casting something of your private life and thought before the public, and that’s scary. Would friends who liked me in my present role still like me in my new one?

And did God himself want me to succeed? Perhaps I didn’t deserve to have a published book. Perhaps he would punish me for seeking this level of accomplishment.

I recognize now that my anxieties about success were not unusual, nor merely the fate of those who write, but the experience of many in every type of pursuit. Psychologists have shown considerable interest in this area of personal conflict, 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 your goal. The fear of success is being afraid 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 observe too that while the fear of success paralyzes some, we all experience it to some degree. The fear is often unconscious, revealing itself in dreams and otherwise inexplicable acts of self-sabotage. An aunt of mine bailed out of a four-year college program only two weeks before graduation. Although her grades were good and only a few assignments remained, she claimed she had lost interest in getting the degree and saw no purpose in finishing. This was an extreme example of the fear of success at work.

Yet often the fear shows up in more subtle forms of self-defeat: a migraine forcing you to cancel a cherished date; laryngitis before a vocal performance; shutting the door on a finger before a violin recital; staying up late and exhausting yourself the night before an important exam; forgetting where you put a vital document; coming down with the flu shortly after you begin an exercise program; getting an eye infection halfway through a writing project; backing a new car into a fire hydrant; taking too long to pack and missing the train; working too hard on a project and wearing yourself out.

A Special Problem for Christians

Christians unquestionably are more prone to this fear than most people. Christian teaching often fails to balance biblical perspectives on the evils of the desires of the flesh and the need for 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 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 offers plenty of warnings about the potential dangers of success. 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 yet caught nothing. Jesus tells them to drop their nets once again, and this time their catch is so huge 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. Such an overwhelming catch of fish is a fisherman’s dream. They surely would want Jesus to give them this success again and again.

Instead, they were taken drastically off guard by this sudden, inexplicable feat. They had grown accustomed to failure, and success was a jolt to their comfort zone. They felt morbidly unworthy of it. They undoubtedly 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 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” (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).

I’m certain that high among Jesus’ greatest healing miracles 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 existence 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 an area of struggle for many. Christ understands your predicament. As surely as he has saved you, he can give you the grace to overcome this fear and realize your full potential for him.

Characteristics of the Fear of Success

Let’s look more closely at what characterizes the fear of success. There are certain common anxieties 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 surely knows they aren’t worthy of this success. It will mean experiencing more pleasure and happiness than they’re entitled to. Accomplishing their objective will make them more competitive with God, more like God. He won’t like it. He will punish them.

The fear of being punished by God for succeeding, while obviously related to our spiritual perspective, seems also to be rooted in our psychological heritage. Many primitive societies have rituals of sacrifice established for appeasing the gods when one realizes personal success. And dream therapy reveals that confirmed atheists have subconscious fears of retribution from a God they consciously deny exists.

The fear of losing others’ affection. Another common fear is that others will love you less if you reach your goal. The complexes producing this fear can run deep and sometimes originate in childhood. If your parents constantly criticized you and belittled your chances of succeeding at anything, you may feel uncomfortable now defying their negative expectations. Your success would be a blow to their esteem, a snub of their judgment. You worry about the effect of wounding their pride--would they think less of you or withdraw their affection?

Even if your childhood experience has not inclined you to fear losing others’ affection through succeeding, it is still natural to worry about how others will react to your success. Friends have grown accustomed to you and appreciate you as you are now. Their personal identify may even have a stake in your not changing. Will they be offended if you succeed? Will they esteem you less? Such worries are common and stifle many from taking the steps needed to realize their potential.

The fear of outdoing others. We may also feel uneasy about succeeding in an area where a family member or close friend has failed. Our success might cause them to feel the pain of their failure even more, we imagine, and so we fear hurting them. Even if this person is rooting for us to succeed, we may still feel it’s inappropriate to allow ourselves to enjoy a benefit they failed to attain.

In her mammoth fifteen-year study of the effects of divorce on children, Judith Wallerstein observes that women whose mothers suffered a failed marriage often feel guilty availing themselves of a good opportunity to marry. It isn’t fair to let themselves enjoy bliss that life failed to serve up to mom.*

While men may hold back from marriage out of a similar concern of hurting their father, they more typically fear surpassing him in career, and may feel guilty about excelling in a professional area where their dad was unsuccessful.

The fear of increased responsibility. Many worry also that success will bring greater responsibility into their life. This fear, of course, isn’t without justification. Success usually does mean additional responsibility. While we may long for the benefits of reaching a goal, and the greater influence it will give us, we may fear that the additional challenge will tax us beyond our limits.

We can also 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 on to 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 that 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 perceive our work. We need to know that what we do is significant; yet we must remember that we’re instruments of a God who uses our weaknesses as effectively as our strengths. In Christ we can achieve this balance, for we can know that while our work is an important part of the help he extends to the world, he doesn’t ultimately depend upon us but graciously uses our availability. With this knowledge, we can serve in a spirit of joyous victory, not defeat.

But What Will Others Think?

We also need to come to terms with our concern about how others may 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 us remarkably resilient as humans. 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.

The role of prayer. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of our personal devotional time as a setting for confronting our fears. We will benefit greatly by giving some generous attention during this time to quiet reflection. We need to dwell on God’s grace and provision for our life, as well as stare our irrational fears in the face and recognize them for the straw men that they are. Make it a practice during your quiet time to prayerfully examine your fears of success and acknowledge their unreasonable nature. Remind yourself that God has put you on earth to be productive; he intends your life to be a gift to others. You are not fighting him by moving toward your goals, but cooperating with him, when these goals are ones he wants you to pursue.

We should also make a point of establishing our priorities and daily schedule during our devotional time. When I’ve resolved in prayer that I should spend my time in certain ways during the day, I’m able to go forth with the confidence that I’m following God’s intentions and not just my own impulses. The conviction of God’s call, more than any factor, strengthens our motivation and quells our fears of both failure and success.

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 fellowship groups. What makes the fear of success so unsettling for many is the mistaken perception that they alone suffer from it. It’s therapeutic simply 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 undoubtedly be relieved to find that others have the same concerns. Pray for each other and encourage one another as you move forward. The renewed confidence that comes from this interaction can be tremendous.

If your fears of success have their roots in childhood traumas or a difficult upbringing, 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.

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 welcome change. We need to be realistic about our own adjustment process and not make sudden drastic changes. If I’m granted a large salary increase, for instance, running out and buying a larger home may not be my wisest move. I may be happier simply making some improvements in my present one.

As Christians we’re well-schooled in the importance of not indulging ourselves with our material benefits but using them to help others in need. Friedman’s point adds a further incentive for keeping our lifestyle within reasonable bounds. Doing so makes good sense not only in view of our responsibility to the world but psychologically. Not that it’s wrong for us as Christians to enjoy the benefits of success. Scripture extols the value of rejoicing in our achievements and enjoying the results of what we accomplish. The point is simply that balance is needed. We should remember, too, that if happiness is our goal, God has created us to find our greatest joy not in hoarding resources but in sharing them.

Keep the wheels in motion. Someone once asked Albert Einstein how he was able to cope with his great fame. He replied that he did so by continuing to work and pursue new goals. He didn’t dwell on his successes but kept his mind actively involved with new challenges. His example speaks to the importance of keeping momentum in our life.

Give your attention to using the gifts Christ has given you, and to moving toward goals he helps you establish. We most fully experience Christ’s motivation, and his healing of our fears, when our lives are in motion--not frantic, obsessive motion, but prudent, natural motion toward goals we’ve prayerfully resolved he wants us to pursue. It’s through this moving forward in faith that we gain the “extra edge,” to transcend our fears, and to find the courage to be whom Christ has made us to be. And we discover most completely and convincingly the truth of the biblical promise, that in his joy is our strength (Neh 8:10).
  

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

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