Recently, I hit a couple of big milestones. It’s been over a year since I began this whole “get my health under control because life isn’t messing around” journey. This past week, I busted through a number on the scale that meant a lot to me…I now weigh less than I did when I was running every day and met my husband. In my mind, that was a super light weight, a time when I felt healthy and a big part of me wasn’t sure I could get back there, let alone break through that barrier. I’m also less than 20 pounds from my goal weight.
Well, as often happens, another challenge has sprung up. I find myself almost inexplicably trying to sabotage my hard work at times. When I dig deeper, I begin to uncover all kinds of things going on there that I might not have expected. This week, I listened to a podcast that really brought the problem into focus. I actually have a fear of…success!
Logically, on the surface, it makes ZERO sense to be afraid of reaching a goal that you’ve been working really hard on, whether that’s losing weight, running a race, writing a book, or achieving something else. You set that goal and look forward to reaching it. Yet, self-sabotage because some part of you fears success is actually VERY common. It’s one of the most common reasons why people don’t reach goals once they’ve gotten past that initial hurdle of building the habits and getting momentum going. It’s also something we don’t often talk a lot about.
One of the biggest reasons people fear success is the fear that they won’t be able to maintain that success.
I know this is a big thing for me right now. I really don’t want to get down to my goal weight and then just bounce right back up again. I want to be able to maintain it and I do have a fear that I won’t be able to do so. As irrational as it might seem, sabotaging myself before I reach that goal can sometimes seem “easier” than facing that fear of not being able to keep the success. It’s similar to why many people don’t finish a book when they have a goal to write one. It’s sometimes easier to sit in that space where, “I could have succeeded at this thing, but I never really gave it a fair try” than to face the scary situation head-on and possibly have failure. If you never reach that goal of finishing the book, then you never have to face rejection letters from publishers and that book you never finished can always have been a best seller. The marathon you never quite ran could have been amazing. The promotion you never got at work of course would have been within your abilities. If I never reach my goal weight because I kept sabotaging my diet, then I never have to know if I could have kept it long term. In some weird, twisted way, my mind is trying to save me from future disappointment by keeping me from reaching my goal.
We also fear change, even when it’s change we think we really want.
Back to our book writing example. What if the aspiring author reaches their goal and smashes it and the book is a bestseller? Their entire life could change. They may suddenly find themselves on a book tour and with a contract to write another book. They may need to quit their day job. Suddenly, that’s a LOT of change in their life. Even positive change can be stressful and what if…what if once they’re there they realize that this new lifestyle really isn’t what they wanted or thought it would be? What if they’re an introvert and really don’t enjoy the work needed to promote a new book? What if the marathon runner realizes that they don’t actually enjoy all the hours required to run the next race, but now they feel like it’s expected of them? Just because you’re successful at something doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically also find it meaningful and fulfilling and often you can’t know what all being at that level will entail. One of my personal trainers recently won a body building competition. She worked for months to get her body fat down and build muscle and she won. Afterwards, though, she realized that she didn’t really like competing at that level. She didn’t like the extreme discipline she had to have over her eating and how it kept her from enjoying relaxed time eating or drinking with friends and she actually didn’t like her body as much when it was that lean. She missed having some more curves. As a result, she doesn’t plan on competing at that level again, even though many people might think she’s crazy to quit now that she’s been successful.
We tend to cling to an idea of who we are…even when it no longer fits.
I haven’t really gone clothes shopping since I lost a lot of weight. It doesn’t seem smart to spend much money on clothes until I’m close to my goal weight. As a result, I’m wearing a lot of clothes that really don’t fit me. Just the other day, I realized I could not keep a skirt up anymore and that it was sliding down! Yet, when I look at those clothes…that’s the size I think I am. In my mind, I am still the same size I was when I started. My trainers can see the progress. My friends definitely see it and give me encouragement, but when I look at myself, I see the same me I’ve always seen. In my own mind, I am a person who struggles with their weight. I’ve been heavier most of my life and that’s become a big part of how I see myself.
The problem with this is that my mind will tend to want to protect that idea of who I am and make my reality fit it. If I don’t shift that identity inside, then I will continue to sabotage my efforts to change it on the outside. Our minds don’t like contradictions like my body not fitting what I expect it to be so my mind will actually actively work to help make those two images fit by quietly subverting my healthy lifestyle efforts. In a strange way, my mind is trying to help make reality fit my own expectations.
It’s kind of similar to someone who has a story in their mind about their financial success. If they view themselves as someone who isn’t good with money and is always struggling to have enough…odds are whether they mean to or not, no matter how much money they earn, they will find it hard to manage it in a way where they aren’t living paycheck to paycheck. When we decide something about ourselves…our mind is very powerful at believing it and making it a reality…for positive or negative.
I’m sure there are other ways that fear of success rears its ugly head, like worrying about how it will change relationships or what other people will think, but these are the ones that are most present for me right now and they’re the ones I’m actively trying to work on. I realize I won’t reach my goals if I’m subconsciously trying to protect myself from them. I first have to conquer the fears attached to reaching them.
And in some ways…that’s proving even tougher than starting.