We're all used to the idea of fearing failure. But the truth is, failure is a doddle compared to coping with success. In fact, experts reckon we're much more afraid of being successful than we are of failing. But what is scaring you about succeeding? - By Laura Marcus.
The most stress at work I have ever faced came when I achieved something I'd been striving for all my working life. I couldn't sleep. Couldn't eat. Couldn't function. It made no sense. I had finally got something I'd yearned for and worked towards for ages yet how did I react? With terror, that's how! Why? Professor Cary Cooper, UK-based professor of work psychology, says he knows why.
Apparently, my reaction is not at all uncommon, especially among women: “Whereas men often take up a promotion with a kind of, ‘This is mine by right' attitude, women tend to question their abilities more. Even today, many men still think the glittering prizes belong to them, whereas a lot of women will have an agonising internal debate: can I do it? What are the costs? Do I really want it?”
This, he says, is why you rarely see women promoted beyond their capabilities the way so many men still are- and haven't we all had to work for men like that? “Women tend to deliberately sidestep or avoid a move up if they have the slightest doubt that they can do the job. They're far more likely than men to play down their abilities and their achievements whereas men play up theirs. To some extent, this is expected and it's the way we've all been socialised. It's hard to overcome those internal obstacles.”
"Women will have an agonising internal debate: can I do it? Do I really want it?"
Cooper adds that women are also well aware that to succeed in today's highly competitive market, there are costs. And not all women are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.
“There's a kind of collective consciousness among many women that to succeed at work they have to block off other routes in their life, such as relationships and family. They have very genuine fears about the personal costs involved to them, whereas men tend not to worry about these things, which I think is rather sad as there are costs for everyone.”
"Many of us do feel the need to apologise for any success we've managed to achieve"
Yet as well as the ‘Am I really good enough for this?' fears when we achieve at work, there is another reason why success can be scary. And that's the voice that drip drip drips into your head, “What's next?” So you achieved something you set out to do. Fine. You had a goal and you accomplished it. Great. But think your subconscious will let that be that?
Think again. When my friend Kate published her first book, after years of trying to get a publisher to take her seriously, her elation was very short lived. “You think, YES! I've done it. But you haven't.
They want another. Then another. And then there's the worry, the sleepless nights over whether you were just a one-off, a fluke, and whether you'll ever be able to come up with the goods again and then if you do, if your book will sell and will it sell enough for your publisher to keep you. It's exhausting and after five books, it never lets up.” Aspiring authors who long to see their names in print take note!
There's another big reason why success can be scary. Women who reach the top or, like Kate, achieve a modicum of fame are inevitably more visible than their male counterparts because there are still so few of them. And there are plenty of detractors only too willing to give you a metaphorical bashing for it. “Some of my Amazon reviews are so upsetting that they leave me weeping and howling with frustration and anger at the sheer unfairness of it all,” says Kate. You'd expect an author whose work is appreciated by women in the hundreds of thousands to maybe be a bit inured to the criticism.
After all, she has her fat advances and big royalty payments to keep her happy. “True. But the nasty reviews still sting me. It's like online graffiti and there 's nothing you can do about it. You can't ever wipe it off. It's there forever. Amazon take the view that it's fair comment but so much of it is nothing of the kind. It's just bitchy and vile.”
And probably more than a little based on jealousy I'd say. Men also face this tirade of abuse if they succeed in a visible industry like writing, or singing or acting. But men find it far easier to
brush the nastiness aside. Men, as Cooper says, expect to be successful and will gladly pour scorn on anyone who is mean to them or openly nasty about their success.
“Most men will happily respond to criticism by saying something like, ‘Well I did it, you didn't, so you're the loser,' but women find it awfully hard to respond like that,” says Kate. True. But maybe we could learn something from successful men and how they deal with it? Kate remains unconvinced. “But it's far tougher for us to be that hard. It's as if we have to apologise for being successful.
Say, ‘Oh, I'm awfully sorry, I achieved something, I reached my goal. I'm so sorry you didn't.' And then we tend to excuse it as just luck. Fearful all the time of being hated for our success,” adds Kate sadly. She's right though isn't she? Many of us do feel the need to apologise for any success we've managed to achieve.
In a world that is still misogynistic and male dominated, most men don't like a successful woman. And I'm afraid a fair few women don't either!
This may partly explain my own trepidations about recently achieving a higher profile for my work. I knew it would attract flak- as Kate's books had- but, like her, I wasn't prepared for the sheer nastiness of it and the highly personal nature of the insults. I was told, by email, about a discussion set up on an internet forum to berate me for my work. But it was mainly me being berated, not what I'd written.
It was basically a huge, ‘How DARE she!' and when she saw this ‘discussion', one of my female colleagues said she would never write for a national newspaper if that was the result! She didn't want that kind of heat and who can blame her?
However, my greatest concern wasn't the flak- no, it's not very nice especially when it's woefully inaccurate. But the greatest response to all the, ‘You don't deserve to be published' flak many women writers now get on the net is to carry on doing it. Doing well is the best revenge, the best answer to all your critics. But it means that my own fear of success is maintaining it.
A working life does not mirror a mountain. You don't reach the peak, plant your flag, then go home. You have to continue climbing, ever onwards and upwards. The goal is always being moved further and further away. You never actually get there!
This is why psychologist Oliver James, author of ‘Affluenza', labels the times we live in as a period when even winners feel like losers! “There is always someone doing better than you and you feel that you have to catch them up,” he says.
“We always compare up, never down. That's why it's so stressful at the top.” And sharing fears with close female friends, as we share other fears with them, doesn't always help because women who reach the top can feel such a sense of responsibility towards other women, anxious not to let the side down, anxious to help them up the ladder too. So our friends and colleagues won't want to hear how tough it is when you get there- they want to know how to get there too.
What man ever feels a sense of gender obligation and responsibility to offer this help? And if a successful woman doesn't offer to help her peers she's labelled a Queen Bee, a bitch who wants it all to herself and to kick other women out the way.
No wonder some women fear success so much that they sabotage themselves, often without realising they are doing it. Cooper explains: “It's quite possible to make yourself ill if you unconsciously want to jeopardise your career. There are all kinds of ways of avoiding something. The mind is so strong it can make the body do what it wants.
So if you want to stop succeeding and achieving because it feels so scary, or you want to opt out completely, the mind can supply your body with a suitable illness which forces you to shut down.”
"It's quite possible to make yourself ill if you unconsciously want to jeopardise your career"
But while success can be as daunting as failure, it does have enormous benefits if we can get past our fears. The boost to the morale can give you the kind of makeover no beauty therapist could ever achieve. For while success may be stressful, lack of achievement, or under achieving when we know we can do better, is much much worse- it also pays a lot less!
True success is about reaching whatever potential you have and that will be different for all of us. Success is also about succeeding on your own terms, not someone else's nor what your family has in mind for you.
As women achieve more, and as they take their rightful place among the hierarchy in every field they enter, there will be new bridges to cross and heights to scale. And sometimes these bridges entail asking ourselves if we have arrived where we really want to be.
The happiest people are those who make their own definition of success, rather than try to measure themselves against someone else's scale: a teacher at school, the family, your partner. So while it's as natural to fear success as it is to fear failure, you can take the fear out of it if you are clear about your goals and clear that they are your goals, not someone else's.
Facing up to our fears will help us to deal with them and overcome them. Men fear success too, but they find it harder to admit. As women, we already have a head start on them because it's more acceptable for us to talk openly about our feelings. So let's express our fears openly but stop allowing them to hold us back!
Source : Arabian Woman