Ask Polly: Why Am I Deathly Afraid of Success?


Dear Polly,

Love your column. Can I throw something at you? Apologies for being vague with certain details.

I’m a 43-year-old woman who has spent my whole life in one industry, got pretty far, and then descended back down the ladder to the place I started from. One day my whole outlook on my career changed and I wanted out. The problem was I didn’t know how to do anything else. I was unconsciously sabotaging job after job but without an exit strategy, so it was a rough few years.

Finally I ended up at the entry level of my industry, hiding my experience and qualifications so I could be a worker bee. In exchange for giving up a great salary and high pressure 24/7 job, I got over a hundred hours of my week back, and for the first time, started to have a life. Materially, it’s spartan compared to what I had, but I’m at peace and happy way more often than I was before.

Now that my job is so undemanding and I have a lot more time than I’ve had, I’ve gotten back in touch with my childhood dreams and have started to do what I really wanted to do. It’s in arts/entertainment.

This is where my problem comes in: Having any actual success was far from my mind when I started my new work. I was just happy to finally have the time to be doing what I always wanted to do.

Things rather rapidly became serious with rather serious people and organizations as soon as I focused and treated my new “work” like real work. I got opportunities other people struggle and train for years to get, and sometimes never do. I am COMPLETELY aware of how incredibly fortunate I am. Friends and peers in the same world can’t believe my rate of progress. I feel like I’m finally on the right track.

But then I just stopped. Hearing about other people’s dreams are the worst, but this dream is my story in a nutshell: I was driving a champagne colored convertible down a gorgeous open highway of gold on my way to Beverly Hills. The road was clear, the sky was blue, I was on my way. Then I just pulled over the car and got out, walked away, and suddenly I was in the bowels of the 42nd Street Subway station. I woke up terrified.

The days are ticking past, and the serious people waiting for me to get on the bus will eventually stop waiting — or else find a replacement.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why I’m so resistant to finishing what I started. Imposter syndrome, fear of success, all of these things hit really close to home, but I can’t pinpoint why I’m finding it so difficult to reach out and grab the brass ring in front of my face.

I don’t think it’s stage fright necessarily, because though I won’t say I don’t care what people think, I have an uncanny ability to shut out the world and compartmentalize feelings and memories to the point of amnesia.

Possibly relevant: I grew up in a home where I was invisible when I wasn’t being abused, and none of my accomplishments of any kind garnered the slightest notice. I left home as a teenager and haven’t had contact with anyone in my family since. Over the years I collected family figure substitutes, but I don’t really keep or maintain relationships for very long. The truth is I lack trust in people for anything beyond the superficial. I just think it’s easier to limit my exposure to myself, basically.

This is my shot at my new life, exactly as I always wanted it, but I’m not pulling the trigger. I know all kinds of freedoms are waiting for me at the end of this road, but I can’t take another step toward it.

My procrastination feels sickening. Yet I’m already letting myself play with the idea of mourning my missed opportunities in the future. The reasonable part of me is horrified. When I try to create new synapses and imagine a happy ending for myself, I can’t bear it.

Got anything for me?

Avoiding The Future

Dear ATF,

Well, you did it. You went and hit me in my own blind spot.

That means I’m not going to give very good advice, probably. But there’s so much to unearth here, and maybe even more to AVOID unearthing — to sidestep, circumnavigate, ignore. This may be one of the big moments in your life when you have to do two different, contradictory things at once: 1) dig for more information about what’s making you so afraid, and 2) set that shit aside most of the time so you can GET ‘ER DONE.

It’s easy enough to draw a line from feeling invisible and never being recognized for anything, to now being afraid that if you ARE recognized for something, it will STILL feel like nothing. You will still be invisible. Or somehow it will kill you. Does being recognized mean dying? Maybe your survival as a kid felt linked to invisibility, and this is why you don’t want relationships and don’t want anyone being close to you or needing you or criticizing you or giving their honest opinion about what’s right or wrong with you. Somehow, whenever other people get involved, the stakes always get too high. You want to stay safe instead. Safe and invisible.

A happy ending — or a happy turn in your path, toward success — would make you visible, and maybe it would also make you responsible for whatever unhappiness might remain. As long as you’re unsuccessful and invisible, you have an excuse for feeling mildly depressed and mildly dissatisfied. So you tell yourself stories about what would be BAD about doing something you really love. You tell yourself that recognition and coexisting with other talented people would be harrowing. You are a fraud, after all. You don’t really deserve to share a room with other smart people. You deserve to remain invisible. IT’S WHO YOU ARE.

I think many of us feel like we should remain partially hidden, and to do otherwise will magically transform us into major league assholes. We’ve seen recognition and wealth ruin other people, or we’ve IMAGINED that it was ruining them. Or we simply didn’t like the choices someone made after he or she became wildly popular or rich — even though, 9 times out of 10, that choice boiled down to bad taste and nothing else. We treated it as a moral, a lesson about success, when there were plenty of tasteless moves and shitty choices in the mix before and after.

BUT — and this is a little freaky, so pay attention — maybe at some level we consider success itself, or wealth, or even happiness, as reflective of bad taste. Maybe we loved the words someone wrote down on a page somewhere, and we weren’t prepared to see the annoying face associated with the brain that produced those words. Maybe we’re just dicks who don’t like that many TYPES of people, and we can only admire someone if we don’t really know what TYPE OF PERSON he or she is. Once we can associate a person with a TYPE, it ruins everything.

But this is all about prejudice. And you know who thinks this way about “types”? People who hate themselves.

So ok, fine, we hate ourselves at some level. What else is new? The new part is that we don’t believe that ANYONE really deserves success or happiness, except for maybe children and puppies and Choire Sicha. We don’t realize that we believe this, of course, because that would be absurd. Instead, we walk around, blindly hating the successful and the happy and favoriting every fucking thing Choire Sicha tweets, without understanding why.

To us, having a little money might be fine, but having lots and lots of money, so much that you can not only gaze at cool stuff but actually PURCHASE IT AND OWN IT? And then other people come over and they go, “Oh shit, your stuff is fucking AWESOME?”

That’s just embarrassing. If I not only craved money, but also had the bad taste to go out and get some? My mother would be appalled. It’s actually a big fear of hers that I might someday stumble on a giant pile of money, because that would instantly render me a big asshole, plus I’d be really unhappy. I think I’ve internalized this warped view to some extent. So instead, I earn just enough to keep my head slightly under water. Perfect.

Why is this starting to sound like a graphic novel?

The point is: Many of us in the world are afraid of doing exactly what we love for money. We might have lots of reasons to do what we love, but we’re also afraid to do it. At first we’re afraid to do it because it seems like a big, stupid risk. How will I pay the rent? Later, we’re afraid to do it because it’s not important enough, or because we’re too old, or because we’re unlikely to succeed and even if we DO succeed, succeeding will turn us into dickheads overnight.

All of the potential pitfalls of success cloud our vision. We get scared and weird and want to hide again.

But THEN: Oops! Someone real in the real world wants to talk to you about your secret shamefully awesome project that reflects just how talented you are? And now you have to have real conversations like it’s a real thing? Oh god, that’s a little tacky. And maybe you have to eat… lunch? At a restaurant that’s nice? And someone might say something about how big this thing you do might be, at which point you’re like FUCK YEAH WHY NOT? But you’re also OH JESUS I CAN’T DELIVER THIS I WILL FAIL and also I DON’T BELONG HERE and also I’M A STRUGGLER, HOW CAN I MAKE THIS A STRUGGLE? And THIS IS GROSS, THIS IS ABOUT SELLING SHIT, AND SELLING SHIT IS EMBARRASSING AND SHAMEFUL.

And then you go home and you think, “That real person just mistook me for another real person, but I’m not a real person. I’m an imposter. I’m invisible.”

And ALL YOU HAVE TO DO to stop feeling conflicted and afraid is shut it all down and return to the status quo of hiding and hesitating. And then, when the idea of following through comes up? You feel a little sick. You can’t possible work on anything. You should, but you can’t. You’re too conflicted. You’re too unsure that this is really for you. Maybe tomorrow. Not today though.

Each day it gets worse. And eventually, you’re already saying, “Well, that was sad, wasn’t it? When I tried to do that thing and then I just STOPPED doing it because it was too real? Or I stopped because I’m a failure, an avoider, a crazy person who can’t really do anything, who deserves to remain invisible?”

BUT LISTEN UP: This is why there are so many simple-minded shitty products in the world, ok? Because simple-minded shitty people, who don’t mind how dumb and lame they are and don’t mind making stupid-ass things and don’t mind earning giant piles of money for them, are the ones who make all the fucking STUFF out there. They make shitty stuff, and then they get to buy the really awesome stuff (which is expensive, because so few people make non-shitty stuff out there). So that’s why you associated awesome stuff with shitty people. And that’s why, when you walk into a place and you say, “Fuck, your stuff is fucking awesome?” You’re actually thinking, “Oh, maybe you’re simple minded and shitty, actually.” EVEN WHEN YOU’RE THE ONE BEING SIMPLE MINDED AND SHITTY AT THAT MOMENT. Striving starts to look like bad taste. Succeeding starts to look unsavory. Envy warps your vision, and you can’t take people at face value anymore. And there’s always a reason not to try.

So basically you’re a neurotic in a cave for the rest of your life, while all the dumb people run around drinking champagne and fucking each other on yachts.

I like this as a graphic novel, a lot. But I don’t like it as the plot of your life. So listen to me, ATF and listen, all of you other weirdos with shitty attitudes about success and money: Let’s stop stigmatizing ambition and start imagining ways of being ambitious and speaking to and collaborating with ambitious people without hating ourselves and everyone else. OK? Because I want to read our stuff and buy our stuff. Yes, we’re already tremendously privileged. Can’t we acknowledge that and become even more privileged and buy a few awesome things and then give most of our money away to people who really need it?

Here’s where I always land: I don’t want anything that much. I like cool t-shirts and really good aged cheese, yes. But money doesn’t seem like a good enough reason to do anything, even when I’m underwater. If money is the real aim, fuck it. So I get confused. Because money is NOT the real aim, ever. The real aim is writing great stuff, that I feel proud of. Money might become involved down the line, but that doesn’t make the whole thing POISONOUS.

The point is, for some reason, your mind is basically looking for any excuse NOT to do the thing you love the most and want to do the most. When your thoughts demand drawings by Chris Ware, you know you’re in trouble.

So at some point, you have to STOP. JUST STOP. You have to stop and say, “I am going to do this thing. That is all. I am going to do it. At long last. No more avoidance. I am going to act. One foot in front of the other. THAT IS ALL.”

Yes, you have permission to enlist a therapist. Yes, you have permission to call a friend or acquaintance or whoever and complain about the lameness of the REAL LIFE HUMANS who do lucrative creative things for a living, those unsavory people who take your talents and harness them and hammer out practical ways to squeeze money out of your work. People will say things to you about your brand, and you might just vomit straight into your hands. Or you’ll be asked to have a social media strategy, of all horse shit things, and it’ll feel like you’ve been asked to pull your pants down in the middle of the high school cafeteria.

You might even picture being way too busy, and having to fly places and talk to people about what you’re doing. Ick. I always picture that. My husband is about to fly to China to give a talk and all I can think is, “Thank god I’m a common hermit and not an accomplished academic, so I don’t have to do shit like that, ever.” He can go out into the world, and I’ll stay here and eat Cadbury creme eggs instead.

But you can’t let fear and avoidance win, ATF. You have to forge ahead. You SIMPLY MUST. This story is not over.

SO: Make a list of concrete tasks that need to be completed. Here, I’ll help. Number one on the list should be “Make a fucking list.” Number two on the list might be, “Call X and tell him everything is moving forward as planned.” Number three on the list might involve sitting your ass down and producing something concrete. List every single thing you need to do in order to forge ahead. Put a date on each task. Tape it on the wall next to your bed. Vow to do two of those things TODAY. TODAY, MOTHERFUCKER!

Day one is crucial. If something else has to slip through the cracks to make Day One a reality, so be it. You’re reading this today, so this is the day you have to do the first two things on the list. OK?

Make the list. Tape it to the wall. Are you done? Is the list on the wall, next to your bed? Good. Now cross “Make a fucking list” off the list.

Now do the second thing. Then cross it off.

Don’t wonder why you feel weird when you actually try to pick up the phone, or try to sit down and get ‘er done. No. DON’T THINK. JUST DO. Don’t call someone to talk about how strange it is that you feel so avoidant about this thing, and maybe it’s because you don’t really feel that good about these sorts of pursuits in general. Most of these types of products are so shitty! Why would YOU want to make something shitty, like all of the other shitty things?!! Or maybe most of them are amazing, way better than anything YOU will ever do.

Shut up and work. If you work hard enough, your thing won’t be shitty. I promise.

But don’t talk about that now. No phone calls. No anything. DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO RIGHT NOW, TODAY. OK? You don’t have to do everything. Just do something. And tomorrow? Two more pieces of the puzzle. Two more small accomplishable items on the list.

Will you need a therapist once you succeed? Yes. Do you need one now? Clearly. Will you have more avoidant episodes? Yes. Will you give in to those feelings? No. You will get up early in the morning, and go to bed early, and stick to your list.

Here’s another important piece of advice: Don’t run around telling a big story about how you’re doing this thing now and it’s great. You’re really doing it! Yeah! But then when someone wants to hear more about it, you’ll admit that it’s making you super confused and stressed out, because you’re ambivalent about this or that aspect of it. You will want to talk that way — victorious at first, then slowly more and more self-doubting. Instead, try to make your free moments organic, low stress, regular, devoid of analysis. You go on a walk, you take a nap, whatever. Don’t change everything just because you’re moving forward with your thing. Keep working on having the same balanced life you had before. It’s not one or the other. You can exercise and eat well and not be an ambitious ball of nerves.

I’m 43, too, by the way. You and I are old enough to do shit just because it’s interesting now. There’s no reason we have to feel like the world splits into two paths, and one involves hiding in poverty and the other involves driving a champagne-colored convertible down a gorgeous open highway of gold. You don’t have to be invisible OR glamorous. You can just be productive and normal and happy. You can do things simply because you haven’t done them before. You can get on a plane and see what China is like without feeling afraid, or feeling like a fraud. You are not either a rock star or a fucking loser who writes stupid songs for no good reason. You are not either a funny person or a failed comedy writer or a megastar of the hit television series SPRAYPAINT HUFFERS. You’re not a hot young woman or a gross old lady. You are a human being who wants to do stuff.

So go do some stuff. Also, ATF? Learn to be vulnerable and lean on people. Learn to let people into your life. Dare to forge intimate friendships. Open your heart. You can do all of this at once. In fact, write STAY VULNERABLE at the top of your list, above everything else. Vulnerability doesn’t have to derail you or hurt you. You can be vulnerable and also forge ahead. You can make things and insist that they not be shitty. (And sometimes you can’t insist on that at first, but you’ll be able to insist on it as you’re more successful.) You can take this one step at a time without freaking out every few seconds, or convincing yourself that you’d rather have nothing.

You can do something without signing on to EVERYTHING. You can do something. Doing something is better than doing nothing. Loving your craft and getting better and better at it? That’s a big part of what makes most people happy. This isn’t just a means to an end; you have to remember that. This is the same thing you’ve always loved doing. This is the same low-key thing that you love. No matter what anyone else says it means, no matter what noise might build up around your craft, it’s still just a craft. It’s just what you love to do. It’s simple. You are better, and happier, when you get to work at something you love. If you need to write that down and tape it to the wall, too, then do it.

And if this thing you’re doing fails? You can try it again. You can try something new after that. There are always things to do, things you will love doing.

Stay vulnerable, ok? But do something. Don’t think. DO.

Now go make that list.


Do you hate making lists? Write a haiku or limerick to Polly today.

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.

Photo by Mike Baird