Fear of Success, Fear of Failure, and the Inner Child

My Inner Child gets really confused about public success and failure. If I fail, I feel bad and humiliated; if I succeed, my Little Girl is afraid I’ll be shunned. I recently had a show of my abstract paintings in my small home town. It was successful in that other painters were interested in my work and people enjoyed it. Great—but it ups the ante, increases the stakes.

Here’s how I learned about success and failure. My older sister Suzie was first-born in our family and she had Down Syndrome. The doctors told my parents to quickly have a replacement child and put her in an institution. They had me only 16 months after Suzie, and a couple of years later, found a boarding school for her. I was under a lot of pressure to be normal and more—to be “smart enough for two.” I certainly tried. I knew my parents were anxious and I responded by succeeding at school, at piano, at most things I tried.

But at school, which was in a working-class neighborhood, I was under pressure to be “normal” in a different sense—to be not too smart, not too quick. Other kids were quick to sense I was different, with my engineer father and my intelligent mother, the books in our house, the radical politic views. When I got perfect scores on homework and tests, kids let me know they disliked me for it.

I learned it was a narrow walk—that success and “failure” (or making mistakes) were both risky. Either way I was liable to be rejected.

So this art show opened up wonderful things for me but also is scaring me in old, deep places. I want the world to be different from that. I want my world to be a place where everyone’s success is valued, where everyone gets a chance to be herself or himself—this person with a talent for spotting birds, that one good at singing, another person just full of heart and goodness. One way to help that along is for me to truly love and value others in their diversity, and I do, on my good days, I do.