Q: How do you handle fear of success?
A: I have to be honest here: not too many people approach me and say they’re worried they won’t be able to handle their success. Most are focused on getting there at all and are truly petrified they won’t reach the goals they’ve set. Among those who have achieved what could be conventionally called success, such as widespread recognition and awards, many are terrified they will backslide into a less well-respected position if their work falls out of favor. In other words, they’re worried their successful work will suddenly be judged “unsuccessful” and they’ll lose their status and the platform for their voice that comes with it. So let me answer a question with a question: is the fear of success you’re talking about really different from a fear of failure?
Fear of success is a symptom of Imposter Syndrome, which manifests as a collection of feelings that can include tremendous self-doubt, a sense of worthlessness, and an inescapable fear that you are a failure, to the point of being unconvinced you deserve help, support, or the accolades you’ve garnered. This is accompanied by an underlying worry that others will discover you aren’t really a “good” artist. Imposter Syndrome presents in people who have already achieved success in some way, shape, or form—from acceptance into an arts program of study to receiving big awards and grants—but believe secretly that they are failures, because they think their work isn’t “good enough.”
The most common advice given to sufferers of Imposter Syndrome is to “fake it till you make it,” meaning to go about pretending you are more confident or successful than you really are, until that success and the accompanying feelings of loving yourself eventually become a reality. The problem is that those with Imposter Syndrome already feel like posers in danger of being found out. Advocating for further performing won’t always help. Sometimes, the stakes just keep getting higher. Instead, you have to come to accept your own worth. The first step is to separate your identity from your work.
Here is some of the best advice I’ve ever received: I had a painting teacher in college who told me I should never alter my work just because she said so. (She also told me in her adorable Swiss accent, “These brushes already know how to paint, so they will help you!” And so they did.) She wanted me to make my own art, whether she liked it or not. In grad school, whenever everyone praised her work, she would intentionally alter it and take it into a less likeable direction. By then, I’d studied with perhaps a dozen arts instructors, most of them writers, and this was the first time anyone had told me point-blank that I shouldn’t work for their approval. I was flabbergasted but also inspired.
To be honest with you, I didn’t really learn the lesson. Not until several years later in grad school when I became so fed up with having my work judged through the lens of what fiction is “supposed” to be like that I began to ignore critics in my workshops whose comments didn’t resonate and instead created the kind of stories I wanted to read. I developed enough confidence to decide for myself what was “good” and worth pursuing. My painting teacher’s advice came back to me then and I realized how brilliant and daring it really was to challenge a college student to defy convention and resist the set standards to follow her own inspiration, or genius.
Art is subjective, so if you work for praise, you will always be chasing down someone’s approval while simultaneously hating yourself for it. Try making/writing/composing something you actually think others will hate, not because it’s offensive—that’s too easy. Don’t make racist/sexist/phobic art. But because it’s different and challenging and uniquely yours. Remind yourself that a negative reaction to art is perhaps more powerful than a positive one because people dislike work that challenges their assumptions about themselves and the world and that impression usually sticks with them, producing passionate responses. Remember an artist’s role is to further discourse and hold up a mirror to society. You can’t always do that nicely, or prettily. This is why visual and performing artists sometimes shock their audiences on purpose.
If you can produce a piece of unlikable art, it’s easier to see the line between your identity and your work, because you yourself are probably not that unlikable as a person. Toni Morrison, a favorite writer of mine, may she rest in power, sometimes mused about the strength of her own books, as if someone else had written them. She had a sense of self outside her writing that enabled a healthy distance. She wasn’t necessarily objective, but she got that her work existed apart from her-self. Indeed, she is gone but her novels live on.
Next, rest assured that everyone feels like a big phony sometimes, even your artistic heroes. They’re all just people, not gods, which means they make mistakes. (Well, actually, even gods make mistakes, they just don’t have to apologize for them). I recommend looking at some of your favorites’ earlier to work to see if you can map their progression. It's likely someone told them along the way that their work was no good. Did they become a more valuable person as their work changed, or as it received attention? Or did they always have talent and, separately, value as a human being?
Lastly, it’s corny but you have to believe in yourself. This does not mean convincing yourself that you are perfect. It’s about believing your voice has value, just as you think other people’s voices are important. You have a right to express yourself creatively, and that that action is beneficial to you and the world. (Even if no one “likes” your stuff, you are still contributing to the conversation. You can still push boundaries, raise issues, portray beauty as you see it). While your work is separate from your identity, being creative is not—it’s a key piece of your makeup, so embrace it. If saying “I’m an artist” makes you squirm, try saying, “I’m a creative” or simply “I’m a creative person.” Or, even better, "I'm an instigator."
Fear of succeeding and all the attention—and scrutiny—it might bring may never entirely go away. After all, who doesn’t want to be liked and praised and eternally popular? As you progress, there will be new challenges, new hurdles to clear. But you can get more comfortable if you can separate your identity from your work, acknowledge lots of people feel this way, including probably every artist you know, and accept that your voice is valuable, even when you think no one wants to hear it.