Fear of Success is Fear of Arrogance

I just had a revelation.  While I have your average run-of-the-mill fear of failure, I also just realized I have an intense fear of success.  Everything I’ve ever done in my life, I’ve done as well as I could without being “too good.”  Even in things for which I’ve been passionate.  I’ve ALWAYS stopped just short of achievement.  Because of fear. Frantic fear.

Until now, this has been entirely subconscious.

I went to my favorite coffee shop the other day, and for a bit of light reading I pulled out Dr. Marlene Winell’s “Leaving the Fold.” I was reading a section about Self-Worth and about how people who were exposed religious fundamentalism often feel that they have no value.  I didn’t quite accept this at face value until I read about Dr. Winell’s own personal struggle with this.  She writes:

One of the most painful struggles in my own life has been the effort to reconcile an innocent, childlike need for love and attention with an acute feeling off shame whenever I am the focus of attention.  As a child, I tried to get approval by achieving A’s in school, doing artwork, extra science projects, and being involved in athletics.  Yet no matter what I did, it was never enough to get what I really wanted- to be told that I was wonderful and lovable and precious.  Instead I was given clear messages that any focus on myself was sinful.  I tried hard to be a good Christian girl, accepting that selflessness was my goal.  Yet my needs did not go away! The double-bind was constant and painful but completely beneath my own awareness.  It is only in retrospect that I recognize my struggle to be loved and to feel important.

One of my most excruciating and confusing memories is about the time I won a science fair in grade school.  I had worked hard and was thrilled to have my parents attend the awards assembly.  Yet when they called my name and I had to walk down the center of the filled auditorium to receive my prize, I was in unbelievable agony.  I simply couldn’t accept the idea that I had done something good and deserved the attention.  Deep down, I believed I was not important and that calling attention to myself was very, very wrong.

As I read this story, I realized my heart was pounding.  I could literally feel my heartbeat in my neck. I looked up from the book, realized I was still in a coffee shop, and tried to calm myself so that I could try to figure out why I was being affected this way.  I smiled, took a couple of deep breaths, closed my book, packed up my things and immediately left for my car.  I don’t even remember my drive home.

When I got home, I immediately wrote down the following list:

  • Piano lessons
  • Trumpet lessons
  • Drums
  • Being in a band
  • Video games
  • Cooking
  • Reading Torah
  • Leading prayers
  • Photography
  • Writing
  • Drawing
  • Getting in shape
  • Working
  • Basketball
  • Soccer
  • Singing
  • Learning different languages
  • School
  • Eating healthy foods

It was a list of every thing I could think of that I had at some point in my life been good at.  It is also equally a list of things that I stopped pursuing aggressively.  I now realize how uncomfortable I had become with being good at things.  Obviously, “good” is completely subjective, so it was only “good” in how I defined it.

I’ll give you an example: School.

I consider myself to be a smart person, and as far as I can remember, I’ve always felt this way.  Not genius by any stretch, but smart (You’ll see by the end of this blog post, if you don’t already, why I felt the need to clarify this).  I was able to “coast” through school without having to put in much effort.  If ever put any effort into my work, I could almost guarantee myself an A. I usually did not put the work in, and sometimes I’d get an A, sometimes a B, and sometimes a C.  The only time I ever got a failing grade was if I simply did not turn in an assignment.

But here’s the thing: I felt incredibly uncomfortable (now I recognize it as embarrassment and shame) when I would get 100% on a test, or if I got the best grade in the class, or any kind of award.  Subconsciously, I developed behavior that helped me to avoid that feeling, and I stopped aiming for high grades. I also didn’t want to fail either, so I learned to play the delicate game of working hard enough to pass but not too hard that I’ll get a high grade.  At the time, I just thought there was something wrong with me that I wouldn’t want to put in the effort to get high grades.  It was worsened by both the fact that I knew I wouldn’t have to work that hard to get high grades, and knowing how much work some of my classmates were putting into their work and getting grades equal to or worse than me.

After reading Dr. Winell’s story, I was reminded of something in my own life that clicked:  Humility. This was my ultimate goal. Somehow I had learned this.  I had learned that pride was evil.  I knew people who were arrogant, and I despised them.  They were rude and inconsiderate.  So to avoid ever becoming anything like them, I learned to be humble.  In fact, I remembered something my dad use to tell me, and still mentions every once in a while:  My dad’s ultimate fantasy in life was “to be humble in the face of world-wide acclaim.”  I believe I took this to heart as well, but turned it into a fear of not being humble in the face of world-wide acclaim.

In the course of my religious upbringing, I further enforced this concept.  I’m reminded of a book I used to study in my late teens, sometimes called A Letter for the Ages, that went into great discussion on the contents of a letter that the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanedies) wrote to his son.  I’ll just pull out a few quotes, or you can read the whole thing here:

  • Accustom yourself to speak gently to all people all all times.  This will protected you from anger- a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin.
  • Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart.  This sterling quality is the finest of all admirable traits.
  • Through humility, the fear of God will intensify in your heart, for you will always be aware of from where you have come and to where you are destined to go.  You will realize that in life you are as frail as the maggot or the worm- all the more so in death.
  • Once you have acquired these fine qualities, you will indeed be happy with your lot.
  • Cast your eyes downward, and your heart heaven-ward; and when speaking, do not stare at your listener.  Let all men seem greater than you in your eyes; if another is more wise or wealthy than yourself, you must show him respect.  And if he is poor, and you are richer or wiser than he, consider that he may be more righteous than yourself.  If he sins it is the result of error, while your transgression is deliberate.

And so on.

But the point is that I ate this shit up.  This was my “jam!” I know I studied that book at least 3 times over.  I had found something in my religious studies that fell right in line to what I had already believed.  People who are arrogant are evil. The only way not to be arrogant is to be humble. I will not allow myself to be evil, so I must become the spitting definition of humility.  Of course now I understand that I wasn’t practicing humility, I was practicing inferiority and worthlessness.

And now it is so engrained in me that I have to fight it every time I am shown acknowledgment for doing something well.  I have a hard time receiving compliments.  I remember a time in college when I actually Googled how I’m supposed to react when someone gives me a compliment.  I learned that “you’re supposed to say thank you,” so that’s what I do, even though my inclination is to completely devalue or discount the deed.  Oh that? Nah it was nothing.  I barely even worked on it. You think its good anyway? That’s probably because you don’t really know much about it.

By definition, every test I had ever taken and done really well on was “easy” and any test I hadn’t done well on was “hard.”   

In fact, just a few days ago, I played basketball with my brother.  He’s always been a better player than me.  This has allowed me to not worry about being great because he’d always be better than me.  This last game, I beat him. I happened to be playing really well, and he happened to be missing a lot of the shots he normally makes.  I felt (and still feel) extremely uncomfortable about the whole thing.  I felt shame every time I hit a “Three,” and my natural instinct was to apologize. When the game was over, I basically pretended like we hadn’t just finished a game and changed the conversation to talk about anything other than what had just happened.

What I’ve realized now, and I say this even though I have not yet even begun to internalize it, is that if I continue to believe this about myself, I will never be great at anything.  And I don’t mean “great” in the sense that other people will recognize my greatness. I mean “great” in the sense that I am proud of the hard work I put into it.  According to my indoctrination (both religious and otherwise), the second I start getting great at something is right when I will become prideful.  So in the past, I learned to become good enough, but not great, at everything in my life.  This is exactly true when I look at the list I wrote earlier.  Every single thing I can think of in my life falls into this category.

I know my work has only just begun, but I’m hoping that just being aware of this issue will sort out much.  I know now that my challenge will be to convince myself that there’s nothing wrong with being proud of my accomplishments.  I also have to convince myself that I’m not in danger of becoming the “arrogant prick” I’m afraid of becoming.  I know that I will never become that guy simply in the fact that I worry about it.  I have to convince myself that I don’t have to worry about being humble in the face of greatness.  I can allow myself to try to become great, regardless of the level of my humility.

And most importantly, I will work on not judging myself or others so harshly. I have to learn that people who are proud are not evil.

This will be a most glorious battle.


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