Monday, December 28, 2009

Fear of Success

My brilliant Weight Watchers (WW) group leader Melvin has brought up fear of success twice this year. The first time was in early spring. He mentioned that a member in his other group had lost more than 50 pounds and was struggling with her fear of success. She was very uncomfortable with all the attention and compliments her weight loss brought her, and she missed the invisibility she had had as a fat person. He asked if anybody in the room could relate, but nobody did. The woman sitting next to me and I laughed and said we loved the compliments.

I did not share that earlier in my life I had felt like this woman. I have joined Weight Watchers more times than I can remember. The last time I reached size 12, it was 1996 or 1997. I lived in Nashville and went to WW meetings regularly there. I can clearly remember one day looking in the mirror and noticing how thin and pretty my face looked. It freaked me out.

This did not make sense to me. Just 3 or so years earlier, I’d been a very healthy 135/140. Why would I be scared of getting thin or prettier? I brought up this fear in a meeting. The group leader really did try to help me find answers, but I don’t think I was in a place to hear or feel what she was saying. Within a month, I’d dropped out and started gaining the weight back. I never got close to a size 12 again until this fall.

I really did leave that meeting in early 2009 believing that fear of success was not an issue for me anymore. I was very proud that I had done the necessary inner work that needed to be done so I could succeed at my efforts to finally lose all the weight I needed to lose to be healthy. I did not want that invisibility anymore. I was not going to be more comfortable as a fat person than as a thin person.

Fast forward to early October 2009. Melvin, my brilliant leader, brought up fear of success again. He asked if anyone was confronting that or was it too soon. The guy behind me said he was. This was the third time he had reached 67 pounds down. He’d been bouncing around the same 10 pound range for months. Another woman said this was the third time she’d reached her goal weight. She could lose the 20 pounds easily, but she couldn’t keep them off.

Something in my face must have given me away because Melvin challenged me on this fear. Earlier in the meeting, I had joked with a woman sitting next to me about fliers that were on all the chairs. The handouts invited members who were at or close to their goal weight to sign up to be receptionists. The gist of my joke was how I was so not qualified. He had called me on that statement, and I had responded with the fact that I was more than 30 pounds away from even being eligible for goal. He circled back to that conversation and said what if the real issue was that I am ONLY 30 pounds away from goal. Was that frightening me?

People, the waters practically parted. I had one of the strongest visceral responses of my life. My whole body tingled, and it was like I was looking down a tunnel at Melvin, and I could barely hear him. Everyone else blurred. I’ve no recollection of what I said, but it was enough that he started talking to someone else.

This was such an oh crap moment. I really thought that fear of success was no longer an issue for me – at least in terms of weight loss. I no longer subconsciously wanted to be fat or felt more comfortable being fat. I thought I was over that. I have been told many times that fear of success was an issue in terms of my writing. That completely resonates, but I’ve yet to figure out how to deal with it. If I’m completely honest, I can come up with arguments for how fear of success has affected me in other areas of my life. I was stunned how much this was still an issue in several areas and had no idea what to do.

I started to listen intensely to what everybody else had to stay. A couple of ladies both complained that they were being told online that they were losing weigh too quickly. Both of them said they took that subconsciously as permission TO EAT and subsequently had gained more than 2 pounds the past week. A couple of other folks shared experiences of self-sabotage. In these stories, there were no answers to how one could stop this self-sabotage, so I asked Melvin.

He said something that I did not get at all. I came back with, so you are saying that you have to work out the emotions that are convincing you to do this. He said, yes, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. I wanted to say, no this is not obvious. Assume I know nothing. You need to break it down step by step. I’ve no idea how to combat this, and I now know this is still a huge issue for me.

So, I left that meeting with the knowledge that fear of success is still a big issue for me, and I needed to work it out. Great. Where did I start? I didn’t know, and I gained weight the next week. Things were not getting better.

I decided I’d work it out by blogging about it. I started a word file for this piece in early October. It’s now late December. I still have no great answer. I know I need to work it out. One of my big goals for 2010 will be to figure out ways to get a handle on my fear of success. I was able to get a handle on one of my other big issues in 2009 – emotional eating – so I know it’s possible to make progress.

I’m aware of the issue. Now I can start working on how and why it’s an issue. Can I figure out and address the underlying concerns? Can I develop coping strategies? Can I figure out ways I can break it down into addressable pieces? Can I figure out ways I can make forward progress on this and promise myself to try to do them? Can I be aware of what I’m doing so that I can learn to recognize when I’m self-sabotaging and get to the point where I can stop those attempts?

I think I can. That’s a start.

Do any of you have fear of success? Have you figured out how to address it? I’d love any and all tips.


Elise Hayes on December 28, 2009 at 8:50 AM said...

Hey Michelle--great post, as usual!

I think part of the fear of success is that success build expectations: if you could succeed in an area once, then you should be able to maintain it (i.e., body weight) or succeed again (i.e., finish and/or sell the next book).

And what if you're not ready for that? When I think back on my journey as a writer, I've known for years that I had major problems writing first drafts. Each first draft took about four years to complete, but I somehow couldn't seem to get past the paralysis that set in every time I started a new project. It's taken me about ten years to start developing tools that are actually helping me deal with that paralysis. But what if that first book had sold? I wasn't ready to produce a book every year at that point. I still may not be (although I'm making a lot of progress toward that goal).

That makes me wonder if fear of success--which I wouldn't have recognized in myself at the time, but now I wonder about it--is a recognition that you still have a ways to go on your journey and that even if you've achieved the outward trappings of success (initial weight loss, a completed manuscript), there's still more heavy lifting to do (i.e., the hard work's not over yet!).

I would imagine that once you've lost a lot of weight, there's a huge amount of social interest (and hence pressure) in whether you'll keep it off or not. That's got to be a tough burden to face.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I'd like to make my own call for help: my mom's been struggling with her weight since she was in her 30s. For the past year or so, she hasn't been able to motivate herself even to try to keep off the weight and she's gained a lot. I've never commented on her weight gain before (and I still haven't). I try to be supportive when she's dieting, but I just don't say anything when she's gaining. My general belief is that she knows when she's gaining and extra pressure from me or others won't help (and might hurt).

I know that Michelle has referred to several books that she'd found helpful in exploring the issues that might be at the root of weight gain (or an inability to lose weight). Michelle, could you (or anyone else who might have references) post the names of some of those books? I'd like to skim through them to see if I could recommend some to my mom. I wonder if she approached the weight loss issue from a more psychological/emotional perspective (analyzing the roots of why she finds comfort in eating), whether she'd be able to start a journey toward more healthy living.

I'm also not at all sure that I should make the book recommendation, though, so people can also chime in and tell me if you think that giving her one or two of these books is a terrible idea.

Many thanks for advice/suggestions you may have to offer!

Michelle Butler on December 28, 2009 at 1:29 PM said...

Thanks, Elise!

I've pasted in my Healthy Writer bibliography below. Some books are specifically for writing, but I think the titles are fairly self-explanatory. The two I found most helpful in terms of addressing the emotional/psychological aspects of eating were Kessler's the end of overeating and the Zen of Eating. They are very different approaches, and Kessler's doesn't discuss emotional eating per say (though eating for reward is very close), but they gave me a lot to think about.

If you have any questions about any of the books, let me know. I can say why I found them helpful.


Albers, Susan, PSY.D. 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2009.

Atchity, Kenneth. A Writer’s Time: Making The Time to Write. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995.

Beck, Martha. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.

Beck, Martha. The Four-Day Win: End Your Diet War and Achieve Thinner Peace. New York: Rodale, 2007.

Brande, Dorothea. Becoming A Writer. New York: Putnam. Reprint of the 1934 ed. Published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York.

Canfield, Jack and Janet Sitzer. The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2006.

Kabatznick, Ronna, Ph.D. The Zen of Eating: Ancient Answers to Modern Weight Problems. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Kessler, David. The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale, 2009.

Lerner, Harriet, Ph.D. The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

Palumbo, Dennis. Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.

Winfrey, Oprah and Bob Greene. Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body – and a Better Life. New York: Hyperion, 1999. Really anything Oprah or her colleagues write about weight loss can be helpful.

Michelle Butler on December 28, 2009 at 1:36 PM said...

I'd love to hear what advice others have about the book recommendations/intervention - I'm not sure how that would work successfully. It always seems to me like you have to take on/do this healthy journey for yourself and not to please someone else (parent, partner, kid, etc.) in order for it to be successful and lasting. And, the encouragement could make the person feel worse about herself - and then she'd overeat to feel better - a vicious cycle. But, there's a whole school out there on how to do interventions, so perhaps I'm wrong.

One of the things that motivated me to try for the thousandth time last year was the example of two friends who had each lost 50 pounds. Their it's really possible example really spurred me on to try again. Are there any successful examples for her to look at? If so, perhaps you could mention - wow, tante so and so really lost a lot of weight - isn't that impressive? and see what she says. Don't follow up with wouldn't you like to do that?

Button Fuzz on December 28, 2009 at 11:44 PM said...

Hi Michelle, I just happened over here and enjoyed your post. Just wanted to add to consideration that some researchers think "self control" is a limited resource - that each person only has so much of it and that exerting control in one area necessitates giving up control in another area. I think the framework may apply to what you're talking about if exerting so much self control over weight that it causes you to let other parts of your life (that may be important) to "slide". Again, it's just a hypothesis that's out there, but it may speak to some un-ease. Here's a little bit of wikipedia about it.

Michelle Butler on December 29, 2009 at 7:40 AM said...

I'd not heard that, button fuzz, but that makes sense. I'll look up the wikipedia entry. Thanks!

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) on December 29, 2009 at 10:44 AM said...

I'm afraid I can't help much on the why and how to address the fear of success. As far back as I can remember, I've wanted to succeed in all aspects of my life. I worked hard in school, joined lots of extra-curricular groups, wrote and wrote and wrote books. It was more the fear of failure that haunted me. I think that has roots in my childhood, and I think my overeating came at times when I was not succeeding and started feeling down about it. You know, seeking comfort in food.

Elise, what if you just happened to be reading one of the books when your mom was around? You could casually say something indicate how much you were enjoying it or it was resonating with you without recommending she read it.

Michelle Butler on December 29, 2009 at 2:10 PM said...

I've always considered myself fairly ambitious, goal-oriented and into success, so I had a hard time considering how fear of success could effect me. Basically what I came up with was that somehow the potential success had implications that frightened me or challenged some kind of (very important or deeply held) belief/image of myself that I held. In other words, it was safer (perhaps just subconciously) to remain as I was than to achieve whatever I said I wanted to achieve. This could also be that it would damage a relationship or a person I loved.

Elise Hayes on December 29, 2009 at 4:01 PM said...

I'm definitely going to look up a few of the books on your list, Michelle. Thanks for posting them!

I think what I'm hearing from y'all is that it might be too pushy actually to buy the book for my mom, but I could tell her about it. I have several friends who, in the past few years, have made major lifestyle changes that have resulted in substantial weight loss. I think I could just talk to my mom about how I'd asked some of those friends about their journeys and "x" book was recommended...

The desire to read the book has to come from her, so it's probably better if she's the one who initiates buying it or checking it out from the library (if she chooses to do so).

Thanks again for the suggestions!

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