Fear of Success

by Helen M. Ryan

I wrote this on my sore rear end, stiff from a 50-mile bike ride. I encountered some obstacles naturally. Accidentally getting on the freeway (I didn’t know my legs could pedal that fast), and riding down a very steep hill just to discover we’d made a mistake and had to ride back up. I hadn’t had enough to eat, and was sweaty and tired with burning thighs.

It was pretty fantastic, though.

I got to ride with a friend, see the waves, smell the ocean, watch the birds, chat with other cyclists, feel the sun on my skin, be at peace, and do something good for my body and soul. Afterward, I put my protesting thighs into a hot tub then ate some ice cream (with toppings). I was tired but felt strong and empowered.

And most important…I felt successful.

I spent a large chunk of life very overweight and out of shape, so success wasn’t a feeling I was used to. I started and failed diet and exercise programs hundreds or thousands of times.

Failure was a way of life. I’d dropped out of college, worked jobs I hated, gotten out of shape, and given up on my dreams. I wasn’t so much afraid of failure as I was afraid of success. Being successful requires effort, discipline, sacrifice, and self-realization. If I actually became successful, I would have nothing and no one to blame my unhappiness on (what?). I would have to start looking at myself and taking responsibility for my own life. (Who wants that? Check, please.)

After my father died, I made the decision to save myself.  When I started exercising, I got stronger and stronger every day. I tried new and harder things, adding entries to the “success” column in my head to counter-balancing the massive “failure” column.

But as the successes added up I got cocky and overshot my abilities. I ended up taking a huge emotional fall by trying to ride up a mountain on my very first outdoor bike ride. I had the wrong type of bike, ran out of water, and overheated. I foamed at the mouth, cried, walked, pushed my bike, and cursed.

In my eyes, I’d failed again. But unlike the “old” Helen, this time I did not let failure beat me. It hurt, but it didn’t crush. I didn’t fall back on overeating. I didn’t give up. I started cycling more outdoors. Did some group rides. Slowly I regained my confidence and improved my stamina.

21 months later I biked up Mt. Palomar again. I didn’t have to...I needed to. For me. To face my fear of failure and success. I flew up that mountain without shedding a single tear, except for the one that threatened to leak out when I finally reached the top.

I’ve already had my failures—and recovered from them. I learned what I am capable of. I am no longer afraid…of mountains, the scale, life, or success. (Though I am afraid of bicycling on the freeway.)

Published July 31, 2007