Are you afraid of success?

How to turn your inner saboteur into a cheer squad


Did you know that Dustin Hoffman co-wrote the 1979 movie Kramer vs. Kramer? No? That’s not surprising. It was a closely guarded secret. In fact, the actor only revealed that he helped write the movie shortly after his 77th birthday – three decades after it won an Academy Award – and that it was his decision to downplay his input.

“I’ve been writing all along,” said Dustin in an interview last year. “I just have never taken credit for it – stupidly. When we were done [co-writing Kramer vs. Kramer] the director said: ‘I want to give you a writing credit’, but I said, ‘No, no, that’s alright.’ That was always my position. Another one was Tootsie: my friend and I co-wrote the early drafts. He took credit. I didn’t want to. Rain Man was another one… I think I’ll take credit for it now.”

It seems like a backward attitude in a fame-hungry culture such as Hollywood, so why wouldn’t Dustin want to be applauded? “I would say there was an element of self-sabotage in me soon after I learned how to walk, which has never really left me,” said the actor, who also suggested that his reluctance to take credit was driven by a fear that success would make people treat him differently. “There was a dignity to being a failure,” he said of his early acting days in New York City.

And he’s not alone in underplaying his achievements. Many entrepreneurs, creative and highly ambitious people are guilty of holding themselves back, and many don’t even realise they’re doing it. Although a certain level of modesty is a positive attribute, it can be a sign of a deeper issue. The word sabotage can be defined as, “To deliberately destroy, damage or deconstruct something”, and when it comes to a person’s career path, it can show up in the form or procrastination, inattention to detail, or “extreme modesty”. In severe cases, symptoms include drug or alcohol abuse, or social misbehaviour such as picking fights, or emotional outbursts.

So, why do we do it? One theory is that many people find a certain comfort in failure; it’s familiar, it’s stable, there’s no danger of disappointment. In his book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, the American psychologist Gay Hendricks writes, “Each of us has an innermost thermostat setting that determines how much love, success and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy.” The minute we exceed that setting – by making more money, experiencing more love, drawing more positive attention to ourselves, you trip your inner limit switch. A little voice inside us says, ‘You can’t possibly find ways to feel that good’ – so we find a way to feel bad.

This is why self-sabotaging behaviour often doesn’t kick in at the start of a new project or venture, but once it’s become established, and when it’s starting to show signs that it’s succeeding. There’s often a misconception that self-sabotaging behaviour is always driven by a fear of failure, but the opposite can be the case. The American author and philanthropist Marianne Williamson is famous for saying, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

The good news is there are ways to make peace with positive progress. It’s time to flip your mindset; instead of preparing for the worst try preparing yourself for the best. “I find that many of my clients deliberately hold back or draw in ‘bad luck’ if they haven’t consciously thought through the ramifications of what could happen if they do succeed, such as how it will affect their lifestyle, family, friends and even community,” says Annabelle Drumm, a career coach specialising in creative industries. “When embarking on a project, really visualise what the end goal would look like and how you can ensure it will bring you contentment. You need to be in it for the long game. I’ve found that a lot of creative people start off with all the enthusiasm in the world but abandon ship as soon as they reach the first obstacle, and embark on another project.”

When it comes to finding a romantic partner, you’ve probably heard the old cliché –you won’t find love until you feel that you’re worthy. Well, the same can be said when it comes to professional achievement too. According to Helene Lerner, an Emmy-Award winning TV producer and author of the book In Her Power: Reclaiming Your Authentic Self, many women suffer from an underinflated ego. “Women do not think big enough,” writes Helene. “We all are tremendously talented. Imagine what could happen if we really had a big enough vision for ourselves… Being visible and letting people know the real you can feel awkward… But we must not shy away from this uneasiness, because it means we are growing.”

When your career is approaching a significant milestone, be particularly vigilant of your inner monologue – are you downplaying your achievements, erring on the negative side or becoming distracted by the idea of moving onto a new project? “I’ve found that entrepreneurs often unconsciously sabotage themselves if they are getting too close to a symbolic income level, like a new tax bracket or even when they are close to surpassing someone else’s income like a partner or a parent,” says money mindset coach Denise Duffield-Thomas, who says this response is particularly common in women. “A lot of entrepreneurs believe they have to shed blood, sweat and tears to earn an accomplishment, so you’ll unknowingly create situations to fulfill that self belief, perhaps by overreacting to a situation or by picking an argument.”

The good news is, becoming aware of your inner saboteur is the first step to overcoming it. Dr Vesna Grubacevic, a neuro-linguistic programmer and author of Stop Sabotaging Your Confidence, recommends a simple exercise to identify limiting behaviour. “For the next week, make a note of all the things you put off or avoid doing when it comes to launching your business,” says Vesna. “Next to each activity, write down the thoughts you had that had you avoid or put off doing that activity. We can use our inner saboteur to our advantage by listening carefully to our negative self-talk, and then reprogramming our thoughts for a positive self-fulfilling prophecy.”

You can do this with simple visualisation techniques. Imagine a movie screen in front of you and see yourself like an actor at a future meeting, event or awards evening (whatever is relevant to your business). On the screen of your life, play our what a vision of success where you feel proud, supported, contented, rather than isolated, uncomfortable and alone.

Do you really want to be your own worst enemy? Then change your inner saboteur into a cheerleader. As Dustin Hoffman discovered at 77 years of age, your achievements will catch up with you in the end…


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