Fear of success, your brain chemistry, & the deep soul.

Fear of success; failure; depression; shame; Louisville KY Therapy
“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 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. Is it any wonder, then, 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 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 psychic pain (such as depression and anxiety) when we aren’t living fully the life we should live. Our psyche signals us when it needs nourishment, 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

In honor of Pride Month

Therapist LGBTQ Pride Louisville KY 40207 Counseling

In honor of June being Pride Month, I’m sharing these wise, strong, and moving words from a colleague out west. Her name is Paula Stone Williams. I’ve edited lightly to help this read easily for those who don’t know Paula or her life story. I hope you find this as moving and inspiring as I do.


Today I will take you on a little journey into the life of a transgender woman. It will not be what you might imagine.

My day is rather like the average day of any female who lives in a nice house in a small town in the foothills of the Rockies. I ride the trails on my mountain bike or pedal the roads on my touring bike. If it’s Monday, I go for a long run. If it’s Tuesday, I see counseling clients throughout the day and enjoy staff meeting and a relaxing lunch with my co-pastors at Left Hand Church.

Saturdays are a little different. I sleep in, mow the lawn, run for 45 minutes, then head to church where we set up for services while the worship team practices their set. After church a bunch of us go to dinner before I head home to watch Saturday Night Live. Yep, pretty simple, the ordinary life of a woman in one of the nicer locales on planet earth. And oh yes, I forgot to mention, absolutely no one, ever, treats me as anything other than the tall white woman I am. Which is what makes me forgetful.

A wedding invitation came in the mail the other day. It excluded me. I have been informed I should not attend a few weddings and other milestone events in the past couple of years. I was even disinvited from my high school reunion. Until these social slights occur, I forget there are these peculiar spaces from which I am excluded.

I also forget about the troll-driven venues on which I am vilified. Then a friend reminds me, “Have you seen the 3,000 YouTube comments about your TED talk?!” I tell them no, I have not seen them. I have no masochistic tendencies.

Last month I turned down an invitation to speak at a Christian university where I was asked to share the stage with a second speaker who believes, “being transgender is not a thing.” The school was shocked when I declined their invitation. I asked if an African-American speaker would be inclined to share the stage with a person who said being black, “wasn’t a thing.” I don’t think they got it.

Of course the truth is that every single day I interact with these people. I see them at the grocery store, the corner Starbucks, the local shopping center. They have no idea they are talking with a transgender woman. They talk and laugh and joke like I am a normal human.

I sometimes want to reveal that I am transgender, but I never do. I figure it is already hard enough for them to get up in the morning and have to be who they are. We’re all just trying to get by.

If you tend to see me favorably, as most of my readers do, you need not lose sleep over my experience. It is what it is. I rarely take it personally. My life is rich and full and filled with committed people, including people of faith, whose generosity knows no bounds.

I feel sorry for those who are afflicted with Hardening of the Categories. It can be cured, but first you have to want to get well, and a lot of people have no interest in getting well. They are happy living inside their self-imposed quarantine.

You know, those folks could go ahead and send their invitations. They need not worry. I am not inclined to go where I am not wanted. I get the lay of the land. I know I am not welcome in only one kind of place in America, evangelical spaces.

Of course, it does seem kinda ironic that every last evangelical website opens with the tagline, “Where Everyone Is Welcome.”

People are strange.

Paula’s original post may be found on her blog at:

What do we need to feel secure?

Lisa A. Tolliver M.S. Therapy, Self confidence, Louisville KY 40207; Imposter Syndrome

What do we need, in order to come out of our shell? To feel secure? To feel that we are competent at what we do? I remember being struck by actress Jodie Foster’s response in an interview after she won a best actor Oscar. She said, “I thought it was a fluke. I thought everybody would find out and they would take the Oscar back. They’d come to my house, knocking on the door, ‘Excuse me; we meant to give that to someone else. That was going to Meryl Streep’.”

If acclaimed actresses feel this way, small wonder that many others struggle with this mind-set. No matter how you frame it, Imposter Syndrome holds you back from fully stepping out into the world. From taking risks. From showing who you really are. From telling your story from the heart. From staying in touch with your core values and forming genuine connections with people who share those values.

Photo credit: Photo by Ahmed Sobah on Unsplash

Meditation – Getting started

Contemplative psychologist, AEDP, Centering prayer, Meditation, Louisville KY 40207
In the last post, Rev. Michael Marsh shared a vivid experience when a meditative state of mind washed over him, and his prayer turned to a silent awareness of God’s presence. Some of us may have fallen into that type of meditative encounter with God without trying, which is what he did. However, there are several methods of meditation, both Christian and Buddhist, that we can learn and use on a daily basis. In this post, I am going to share how to engage in the form known as Centering Prayer.

Here’s the simple method:
Select a location where you will not be interrupted. Sit quietly & in a comfortable position.

Select a prayer word, preferably of one or two syllables at most. Some good examples are: Abba, Grace, Love, Oneness, Peace.
Set a timer to chime quietly when your time is up. It’s best to begin with short sessions, perhaps of 5 to 7 minutes.
Breathe in & out a few times, then shut your eyes. Say a brief prayer dedicating this time to God.
Allow your mind to rest and go quiet. Some people find it helpful, at first, to focus on how their breath feels as it enters and leaves their nostrils.
Repeat your prayer word. When you notice your mind is thinking, instead of quiet, repeat your word to yourself in a gentle tone, and let go of your thought.
Don’t resist or react to any thoughts you have during your session. Don’t beat yourself up for having lots of thoughts. This is normal, especially when you are just beginning to do centering prayer.
Session’s up. When your timer signals the end of your session, close with the Lord’s Prayer. You may also want to offer a simple prayer of gratitude in your own words.
That’s all there is to the basic method! As you might imagine, however, this deceptively simple method can yield rich results when practiced over time. Also, you can expect that, at first, your mind will be very, very busy with thoughts. Be gentle with yourself. In future posts I’ll have share some knowledge about normal struggles to expect when beginning a centering prayer practice.

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

The Prayer of Silence

Prayer Lisa Tolliver Meditation Louisville KY


Over at his blog, Rev. Michael Marsh writes about a moment when his prayer ‘went still.’  He felt he had no words.  The way he describes it, it was a very tender feeling, but also alive with the presence of the Holy.   In fact,  ‘Still prayer’ or ‘the prayer of quiet’ are other names for Christian meditation.  His short post (below) conveys the peace which can come from this form of prayer.

Prayer begins when the words end

Psalm 62:1. “For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation.”

Michael+ writes:  One Sunday, years ago, I knelt to pray before the liturgy began, as was my usual practice. I always had something to tell or ask God. This day, however, Continue reading “The Prayer of Silence”