For Some Writers, the Fear of Success is Real

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Check out this week’s writing prompt: What does success mean to you? Describe it on your terms. Or write about a time when fear of success held you back from accomplishing a cherished goal. How did you overcome it?

While the fear of failure is fairly common among writers, others suffer from a different malaise:  the fear of success. That might be a strange thing to say. “How can anyone be afraid to succeed?” you ask. You’d be surprised at how many people fear success, myself included.

Fear of success might manifest in several ways. You might have an unfinished project – or two, or three or ten. You have several projects in various stages of completion but never seem to finish any of them. In your mind, finishing one of them means you’ve achieved a certain level of success. Once you get to the end, you might begin to worry about what happens next – a thought that scares you enough that you never finish your work-in-progress.

Or just when you near the end of a writing project, you get stuck. You’re faced with writer’s block, unsure how to wrap up your story.

Maybe you find other more important things to do. You get so busy doing housework and chores that you can never get around to working on that final chapter.

Perhaps you edit your piece over and over again, never fully satisfied with what you’ve written – a useful delay tactic preventing you from finishing your piece.

Fear of success is very real, but it is misunderstood, according to psychologist Nick Wignall. The fear is about the consequences of success, not the success itself, Wignall says. “Life can change dramatically when you succeed,” he explains. “You’re entering unchartered territory. Fear of success can be more debilitating than fear of failure. With fear of success, you may be projecting yourself too far into the future which can result in self-sabotage. You may not realize you’re sabotaging yourself.”

For example, once you publish a book, you may be required to go on a book tour, do interviews and public appearances and, of course, begin writing that second book. Your life changes dramatically. It’s these unknowns that can scare people into non-action, Wignall says.

If fear of success is holding you back from starting a writing practice, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Define success on your terms. Think about what success means to you. What does it look like? It may look and feel differently to you than to your spouse or your best friend. We all carry an image of what success looks like. So be sure you are defining success on your terms, not someone else’s.

When you define success on your terms, there should be no reason to fear it because you’ve defined it on terms that are real, concrete and readily achievable. More important, they are meaningful to you. It’s when you follow the path of success that is predetermined by others or by the publishing industry that tend to strike fear in us.

Finish what you start. This is easier said than done, of course. If you have trouble completing writing projects, then stop and consider what is stopping you. Are you stuck on a plot point? Or did you get bored with your story? Or did something else interfere with it, such a sudden need to do laundry?

If you have a file of unfinished stories, go through them now. Choose one story or essay that you’ve started but never finished. Go back and work on it until you finish it. Do not, under any circumstances, start any other projects until you finish this one. Once you finish that piece, sit back and revel in your success of completion. How do you feel now that it’s done?

It might help to make that a general rule of operation: Don’t start any new projects until you finish the one you’re working on.

Remember that finishing a story, no matter how long or short it is, is a form of success. If you’re able to finish one story, imagine how good it will feel to finish all the others in your file.

Stay in the present moment. Because much of the fear of success hinges on possible future events – author readings, interviews, the next novel, etc. – you forget to stay in the moment. Fear of success – or any fear for that matter – deals with future situations that may or may never occur. Why worry about the future when you have important work to do — now? Stay present in your writing and let the future take care of itself.

Train yourself to talk about your writing. People with a fear of success often have difficulty boasting about their accomplishments because they don’t want to appear arrogant or full of themselves. But it isn’t selfish to brag. In fact, for a writer to find an audience, telling others about your completed project is often necessary. So go ahead and tell people what you’re working on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you talk about your current writing project, the more comfortable you will be with your public persona as a writer.

Share your fears with a friend or writing buddy. If fear is holding you back from finishing a manuscript, it might help to talk things over with a trusted friend or colleague. They may provide some valuable insights to help you over the hump. If you find it truly debilitating, it might be necessary to talk to a professional therapist.

Fear of success for writers is more common than fear of failure, but it can be even more debilitating. Recognizing your fear and why it occurs is the first step toward overcoming it.

Seven Signs That You’re Sabotaging Your Writing Practice

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A writing practice is only as successful as your level of commitment to it. The more committed you are to a regular writing practice, the more consistent your output. Makes sense, right?

But what happens when you get oh-so-close to finishing your manuscript, but never seem to get around to finishing it? What happens when you do finish a story, but never seem to get around to submitting it to editors for possible publication? What if, instead of finishing your manuscript, you suddenly find other more pressing things to do, like clean the garage or spend more time with your mother-in-law? Is it really a matter of changing priorities? Or is something else going on?

I’m certainly guilty of these behaviors as I’m sure many other writers are. Psychology experts suggest that these patterns of behavior – procrastination and self-sabotage – are inbred in us. No one is immune to them. Even the most successful published authors have admitted that they have utilized these sabotage tactics.

It’s tempting to blame your tendency for self-sabotage on external factors, such as a demanding family life or a faulty computer. But unfortunately, blaming outside factors is a waste of time and energy. The only thing that is standing in the way of your own success is you. It’s time to get out of your own way.

From my experience, I’ve noted seven signs that you may be sabotaging your writing practice.

1. You stop writing indefinitely. You could be coasting along with your writing practice, meeting your daily writing goals and making steady progress on your story. You feel confident about your accomplishment. But then you stop writing. Why? What went wrong?

Maybe you got a negative review of your latest work that stops you in your tracks. Maybe you look at your life and question whether anyone else would find stories of your childhood interesting. Maybe you’ve read so much about writing that you feel overwhelmed and feel unsure how to begin your next project.

Giving up on your craft is not the answer. Letting your ideas fade into the distant past and collect dust isn’t the answer either. If you stop writing, but you still want to write, you need to figure out why. Give yourself a deadline of, say three days, to regroup and contemplate why you have stopped writing. Maybe it is a need for a mental break. If so, then when you are sufficiently rested, get back to work. The important thing is to keep writing. Ironically, it may be the very act of writing that breaks you out of your malaise.

2. You focus on the negative. You overanalyze your own writing and decide it’s simply not good enough – You’re not good enough. You constantly look for what’s wrong with your technique than with what’s right. All this focus on the negative qualities of your writing can undermine your confidence. Too much analysis can freeze you in place. The next time this happens, have one or two people review your work and give you positive feedback – something to keep you motivated so you keep writing.

3. You take criticism too personally. It can be disheartening to hear negative feedback about a piece you’ve been working on for weeks. Don’t let it paralyze you. Some critique is necessary. See the feedback as an opportunity to improve your writing. Most important, don’t take it personally.

4. You constantly compare your work with others. So what if other writers have more experience than you do or they’ve had more stories published. You need to remember that they started at the beginning at some point. Stop comparing yourself at the beginning of your career to someone else who is further along. That’s like comparing apples to bananas. You will never get ahead that way. If possible, try to stay in your own lane.

In this situation, you might also need to re-evaluate your goals and expectations. Have you set them too high? Are they unrealistic? It may be time for a rethink of your expectations to make them more manageable.

5. You don’t believe you have anything worthwhile to write about. Everyone has stories to share. Just because you think you don’t have anything interesting to write about doesn’t mean you don’t have anything interesting to write about. It’s all perception. When you feel your work is not worth reading, it can be tempting to stop writing. Again, keep writing until you find a story worth telling others. If needed, ask someone to read your work.

Every experience in life counts for something. Every experience is worth writing about. The story is your perception of events as they unfolded and how they impacted your life. Believe that there’s a story everywhere you look. Believe that you do have something worthwhile to share – then start writing about it.

6. You focus too much on the past. We’ve all suffered failures in our lives. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all had situations that did not work out. Understandably, we don’t want to repeat those mistakes. Learn from those mistakes, then move on. Just because you made them once before does not mean you will make them again. Stop focusing on the past and stay focused on the present.

7. You focus too much on the future. Perhaps you dream of earning your own byline in a high-profile magazine or you are determined to get your manuscript published. But those goals are meaningless if you haven’t written a single word. It’s easy to get way ahead of ourselves, but just as in point #6 above, it’s imperative to stay in the present moment.

You can’t change the past and you can’t control the future. So you might as well stay in the present and make the most of it – by writing.