“I have lost so many opportunities. They’re like trains I just LET go by! How did I let this happen to me?!”
What pulled at ‘Julie’s’* mind was all the choices in her life she had not dared to make. She felt saddened by a potential that she had never dared to grow. Her friends told her to get help for depression; Julie knew she felt ‘down,’ but somehow thought it wasn’t simple depression. She felt that she had tremendous creativity, passion, and energy that was held back somehow. “It’s like it’s trapped behind a brick wall,” she said. “I don’t know whether I’ve been more afraid that I’d fail, or that I’d succeed,” she said. And then, with a pained expression, “Does that even make any sense?”
I assured her it did make sense. And I agreed with her that she wasn’t just suffering from a ‘simple depression.’ Fears of success and failure often go together. The description Julie gave sounded like what depth psychologists know as “the refusal of your calling.” It’s a sign that there is an unlived life potential within you. Having the sense of a calling is both exhilarating and frightening. It’s a new idea to many people in these days where the culture seems awash both with inspirational messages and cynical ones. The cynical messages tell us that everything is meaningless, and we are doomed to fail. The inspirational messages tell us we can achieve absolutely anything we want, and that getting what we want is a simple, uncomplicated matter. Both messages, taken at face value, are false.
One of the insights of psychology (as well as all our major world religions) is that nothing in life is a completely simple, uncomplicated matter. Everything has its shadow side, and every journey has its twists and turns. Every gain risks a loss. Some losses are inevitable, and must be mourned. We human beings are complicated creatures indeed, fearfully & wonderfully made. In this light, having some fears of success begins to make sense.
Steven Pressfield, in a recent book, puts it this way:
We know that if we embrace our ideals, we must prove worthy of them. And that scares the hell out of us. What will become of us? What if our friends and family no longer recognize the ‘new’ us? What if we wind up alone, in the cold void of starry space, with nothing and no one to hold onto?
These are powerful fears. Could it be that following our deepest goals touches such primal fears as this?
Survival Instincts, and the Pain of Independence
In fact, there is evidence in favor of Pressfield’s statement. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, discovered that people unconsciously tend to conform to the viewpoint of the group of which they are part. Furthermore, people who did not conform to the opinions of the group showed a different pattern of brain activity. They had heightened activity “in the amygdala, an area in the brain associated with anxiety and survival-related fears.” The amygdala is one of the earliest brain structures to have developed as mammals evolved bigger brains, and it is, among other things, concerned with our survival. So, for example, if a prehistoric man just last week escaped a sabre-tooth tiger attack, it is his amygdala that fires off the command to “fight or flight” when he again hears a rustling in the brush and sees an orange and black-striped hide. Dr. Berns’ research indicates that the deepest part of our brain may view it as life-threatening when we take a stand ‘on our own’ against or in contrast to our peer group. One popular writer has named this reaction “the pain of independence.” It’s the cost of following our calling and not following the herd. Does it seem any wonder, now, that many people fear success as much as failure?
Seeking Support to Move Beyond the Fear of Success
Many times there are gifts hiding in what we would call, on the surface, symptoms of depression or anxiety. In some people, these ‘low’ or jittery feelings are masking the frustrated voice of our own calling. Along with our fears of separation from the group, many of us also fear, underneath it all, separation from our deepest selves. The psychiatrist C.G. Jung called this the “fidelity to the law of one’s being.” In other words, we feel pain (such as depression and anxiety) when we aren’t living fully the life we should live, just as our stomachs send us uncomfortable signals (hunger pains) when we are starved for food.
There is a bridge across to the other side of fears of success. One of the helps of psychotherapy is that we find a companion to help us navigate across this abyss. The presence of an understanding other not only feels good to us, the reduced isolation also helps our amygdala not to fire off such strong warning signals as we explore scary inner territory. Thus we are more likely to be able to hear the voice of our calling above the voice of fear.
** Note: Names and other identifying details of client’s stories have been altered to protect confidentiality. Photo in header is by David Preston on Unsplash