Saturday 18 November 2017

Stop self-limiting: The fear of success comes before the fear of failure

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I had the pleasure of meeting Elma Walsh, mother of the late Donal Walsh, last week. We were on a panel, along with Health & Living editor Yvonne Hogan, discussing the portrayal of mental health in the media.

Elma's speech concluded with her reading an open letter that Donal had penned shortly after he appeared on the Saturday Night Show.

She told the audience that Donal wrote the letter because he was struggling to accept the praise that had been heaped upon him, and concerned that he might appear "up himself" among his peers.

The words of that letter were so potent that I found myself holding my breath lest I missed a single beat. "That was powerful," I said to her when she finished reading. She held her tongue and instead gave me an emphatic nod - I could see where Donal got his modesty from.

I thought a lot about that letter afterwards. In particular I thought about Donal not wanting to come across as big-headed. Here was a teenager on a noble mission, with a profound message to share, worrying that he might seem arrogant. He couldn't have been less "up himself".

And yet I can understand his predicament. We are conditioned to play down our achievements just as we are taught to keep schtum about what it is we would like to achieve. In Ireland it is especially bad to "have a notion" of oneself.

Yes, modesty is a virtue, but we forget that modesty means restraining the urge to brag about our accomplishments, not restraining what it is we would like to accomplish. This fear of seeming big-headed quells the fire of ambition. I often wonder if I'd have picked up the pen earlier had I not struggled with the idea of calling myself a writer, or worse, the idea of people saying "She fancies herself a writer".

I described myself as a "would-be writer" for quite some time, but I soon discovered that it's near impossible to enter an industry when you don't have the moxie to say that you already belong there.

We all have quiet ambitions. Sometimes we daren't voice them lest we betray a shade of too much self-belief. Instead we wait to be discovered. Sometimes it happens this way. Often it doesn't. Self-promotion is the only form of promotion. You have to put yourself forward.

We are told that the fear of failure holds us back.But many more of us can't get past the fear of success stage, or rather the fear of admitting that we'd like to be successful.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate," wrote author Marianne Williamson. "Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be?"

We put ourselves in boxes from an early age as it's easier than reshaping our belief systems.

Ask yourself when you decided that you're terrible at sports/rubbish at art/incapable of public speaking. You'll realise that it was probably around the age of 12.

Later in life we decide that it's more human to have limits than it is to have talents. This self-limiting behavior impacts all the choices we make: "I could never pull that off" / "She'd never go for someone like me".

It's easier not to play the game - at least people won't know you had the cheek to consider yourself a contender.

We've even learned to contain our fantasies. What does your dream home look like? Ask people to tell you and you'll discover that their imaginations generally don't permit them to go beyond five bedrooms. We've learnt to limit the only place where there are no limits. Best not to have ideas above your station…

So who designates your station? Who are the station-masters? Often they are the people with the least self-doubt. "The trouble with the world," wrote Bertrand Russell, "is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt".

There is empirical evidence to support Russell's idea. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a proven cognitive bias which shows that the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority complexes while the skilled suffer from illusory inferiority complexes. That's how untalented people rise to the top, and why the talented people at the top are waiting to be found out. It's desperately unfair.

I've realised that those most afraid of seeming "up themselves" are generally the people with the biggest gifts to share with the world and, ironically, the people that need the most encouragement. They don't want praise - they'd squirm at the very idea of it. Often all they need is the nod to let them know they're on the right track.

The remarkable Donal Walsh was championed all the way by his parents, who I'm sure told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn't at all "up himself".

"If I start to accept these compliments, I'm afraid of what I'll become," he wrote. "Will I be braver than YE? Will I be kinder than YE? More genuine than YE? Or more honourable than YE? Better than YE? No. I can never accept that there is a YE. We are all the same, we are all given one body, one mind".

There were no stations or station-masters in Donal's world. No inferiority or superiority. Everyone had limitless potential. Everyone was the same.

His letter reminded me not to compare myself with others, just as it taught me that those with the biggest hearts and the boldest messages need support too.

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