Fear of Success and Impostor Syndrome

This is how I felt in February 1996

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”

– Marianne.Williamson

I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I started getting calls from PhD programs in psychology, early in 1996. First one. Then another. Then another. Then another. Of the 17 programs I applied to, 10 wanted to interview me.

You would have thought I would feel exhilarated, excited, maybe nervous. No.

I was horrified.

It is difficult to describe the feeling. At the time I was seeing a superb therapist who explained it as “cognitive dissonance.” I thought of myself, deep down, as a loser, and here I was winning the most important battle of my life. My most deeply held beliefs about myself were being shattered by reality. And it felt really, really bad.

Needless to say, I got over it. I did my interviews adequately, and got full funding at at least one program, so there I went. Needless to say, I got my PhD in 2004 and these feelings of inadequacy didn’t stop me. Nor did they stop me from building a successful practice.

Still, I have recurring dreams that I’m back in high school, or even elementary school, trying to make up for some assignment that I missed. I’ve been having that dream for years now… ever since 2004 when I got my PhD!

“But I’m 42 years old!” I protest in the dream. “I have my PhD! Why do I have to do this assignment?”

Deep down, there’s still a part of me, evidently, that thinks I’m an impostor. So be it! We can laugh at ourselves and gain perspective, once we have managed to muddle through and attain our initial goals in life. But until we do, it can be a pretty rough ride, as our minds tell us again and again in different ways that we shouldn’t , we can’t, we couldn’t possibly succeed.

What we fear most, those of us, who are not few, who doubt ourselves, who feel a vague sense of unworthiness, of being impostors–what we fear most is to have that self-image challenged or even destroyed. We may consciously want that to happen, but when success looms, when destruction of our childhood image of ourselves is threatened, there can be a terrible fear, even a sense of impending doom.

What to do?

Shall we dispense with the customary 9-point laundry list? My suggestions are simple:

– Accept that fear is part of progress

– Keep focused on goals and dreams even when it’s very difficult to bear the emotional pain involved

– Remind ourselves that we are not the only ones who stand to gain from our successes: many other people are going to benefit from our success, if we are ethical, caring people.

The remainder of the Williamson quote speaks to that third point better than I possibly could. n.b. This quote is often misattributed to Nelson Mandela. I was saddened to learn, upon first publishing this post, that he never said it.

“We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

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