The Fear of Success - Zenergene

In the past I generally associated the idea of achieving my goals and making positive lifestyle changes with positive outcomes. For example, if I improve my health and fitness or make a desired role/career change my life will be better. I will experience greater satisfaction, happiness and quality of life. Conversely, I associated the idea of not achieving these things with negative outcomes and feelings. 

On a conscious level, I feared failure. I feared the tangible consequences of not succeeding along with the resulting disappointment or embarrassment. However, often failure is not really “failure” but rather a continuation of the status quo. Same shit, new day. Although it may be disappointing it can also be somewhat comforting. I get to continue being me and doing what I’m doing now. Other times, “failure” can become learning, growing and preparing yourself to try again with a new perspective. 

More recently I’ve had the insight that often what I actually fear more is succeeding. When I really stop and think about it, I realise that I generally have comforting narratives that make it ok for me to fail. e.g. “whatever happens, this is a great learning experience” or “even if this doesn’t work out, at least i tried”.

I generally don’t have a story ready for succeeding…What will my life look and feel like if I succeed? I have no idea and this freaks me out. Yes, on a deeper more subconscious level I am more afraid of achieving my goals and desired lifestyle changes than not achieving them.

Why is this?

Firstly, succeeding requires me to be different. 

Secondly, succeeding requires me to step into an unknown future. 

Success requires change

Succeeding requires me to be different. It requires sacrifice. Something about who I am (my values, beliefs, priorities and behaviour) or the things I do (my habits, practices, skills etc) needs to change. Although I may rationally want change and the positive benefits it brings, this also comes with negative feelings and unease.

I spent most of my 20’s working super long hours in challenging roles, travelling, eating great food and drinking endless amounts of delicious wine. I had amazing life experiences, personal and career achievements and a whole lot of fun. In fact, along with my passion for health and fitness – this was me. This was my life, what I did and what I loved. Despite all the good stuff, my physical and mental health was suffering and I knew deep down I wasn’t being the me I wanted to be.

In order to live the life I am living now and show up as my best self, I’ve had to make some pretty big lifestyle changes. For the most part I made small changes which compounded over time. However there have also been a few big changes too (e.g. around alcohol, sleep patterns, relationships, and how I work and manage stress).

I love my life now and I am proud of what I’ve achieved. However, I’m not going to lie. Some days it sucks. Some days it takes a lot of discipline, courage and hard work for what can sometimes feel like minimal reward or fun. There are many times I feel sadness and loss for the life I lived before. Yes – I have stopped doing things I actually enjoyed doing. Simply acknowledging this has really helped me. Now I tell myself that it’s ok to feel loss and sadness for the sacrifices I’ve made. At the end of the day, these elements were no longer serving me and got in the way of me being my best self. 

Secondly, succeeding requires me to step into an unknown future

Often, we don’t know what our desired future (i.e. success) will actually be like and that can be scary. It may even lead to unintended self sabotage. Being able to acknowledge this has helped me in looking forward. 

Over the past couple of years I’ve made some significant changes to my work/career in order to allow myself more time to focus on my lifestyle coaching, workshops and personal training. This was really important to me and something I’ve wanted to do for ages. However actually doing it was scary and emotional. Firstly, I had no idea what my future would look like and how things would work out. Secondly, I had to reduce one thing I really love (my corporate career) in order to give time to something else I love. This was not easy. Where am I heading? What am I doing? What will my future life look like? The uncertainty and unease make this hard. Not to mention the real risks, trade off and opportunity costs. 

I’ve outlined below three key things that have helped me with the above two challenges. 

Acknowledge change and sacrifice

Acknowledge personal change, sacrifice or loss involved in change. Identify this and allow yourself to feel sadness if need be. Know that to be your best self this is something you are giving up or changing. Sometimes this is about you, sometimes it’s your environment. I give thanks to things that were comforting to me at a point in time (e.g. good wine) even if they are no longer part of my life.

Acknowledge unease and ambiguity

Acknowledge how you are feeling about future change. Be prepared to feel unprepared. The reality is that stepping into an unknown future can feel daunting. Sometimes you just need to acknowledge it, embrace it and take a little leap of faith.

Despite good intentions, planning and goal setting we never really know if we’ll truly achieve the change and outcomes we want or what our life will be like when we do that. Focussing on a large goal / outcome (e.g. making a career change, travelling for six months, buying a house, losing 20 kg) can provide a sense of direction and purpose. However, it can also leave us feeling demotivated or “stuck” where we are now.

A strategy that has worked well for me over the last few years is to move my focus away from imagining the outcome to instead imagining what my day to day life and identity would be like if I actually achieved that outcome. 

What will this outcome look and feel like? Who will be around me? What kind of choices will I make on a daily basis? What will my habits and routines be like? This works well because I can start taking small actions to being that person today. The more you start to embody your desired future identity now, the sooner you’ll arrive. 

Hold gratitude for the choices you have 

Sometimes thinking and planning for the future can feel hard and overwhelming. Am I on the right path? What am i doing with my life? What if this doesn’t work? What if I make bad choices and fail?

In these moments I try to step back and remember that I am in a privileged position where I have many options and I get to make choices about the life I want to live. Regardless of whether I fail or succeed this is something special.

Jade is a Lifestyle Coach and Organisational Development Consultant living in Auckland, New Zealand.

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