Overcoming my guilt of being successful

Last week, I shared with you how I was dealing with some professional setbacks (I did call them failures!). I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that society makes it okay to talk about our failures, not so much about our successes. For the longest time, I hated talking about my successes. Actually, I didn’t talk about them at all.

I felt that sharing about something I succeeded in would come across as showing off and, on top of it, would be completely insensitive to others who may be struggling. I also had this underlying fear that I may jinx myself. I’m not really sure where this belief comes from but I know it is a very common fear - especially among women - that if you talk about something good that happened to you, the act of talking about it will make it go away. I suspect it is somehow linked to the cultural image that women who are successful in business are unattractive, mean, and end up alone.

Culture plays a very important role in what we believe is good and bad, and growing up in France definitely had its load of prejudice against anyone who displayed success. (Even successful artists, the one domain where the French consider it okay to be very successful, are forever expected to show that they are suffering).

As a result, for years, I have experienced guilt around any success I encountered, especially financial success.

Guilt can be a useful socially enforced emotion when it comes to discouraging people to commit a crime and to repent for committing “bad” things. But for any other situation, guilt is problematic because it encourages you to hide. It often brings up shame, which stops you from showing up and, worse, can encourage you to pretend you’re not who you really are.

That’s exactly what happened to me.

At the age of 27, I set up a media monitoring business which quickly became a six figure business and which has allowed me to live very comfortably for the last few years. I felt guilty about the success of this business because I had benefited from the help of my parents when setting it up, something which I knew was an immense privilege. I felt guilty because it was in a domain that I didn’t consider “sexy” or purpose-worthy. In my teenage and early adult years, I had strongly identified with being a writer and a traveller (I moved to India at 21) and basically considered that being a romantic figure ebbing and flowing in the world was the only worthwhile way to live life (thanks, France).

I didn’t just hide the success of my business, I hid the business altogether. I would rarely talk about it and deliberately remained vague when people asked, so much so that most eventually stopped asking about it. I managed to split myself in two.

For the first few years, it wasn’t a problem, I actually like this double life as each part fed into different angles of my personality. But compartmentalising yourself like this takes a tremendous amount of energy. It also confuses people who don’t get to really know you because you don’t let them. When you don’t feel known, it makes you feel isolated. It also stops you from showing up as your true self, which, in turn, holds you back.

And then one day, I decided it was time to tackle this guilt I had been carrying around for so long. But the thing about emotions is that you can’t change them unless you work on the thoughts that are fuelling the emotions in the first place. Emotions are just a physical embodiment of your thoughts. That’s where the work needs to take place.

I decided to break down every thought that was contributing to that guilt and turn them around into something that was still aligned with my values but that would help me to grow instead of holding me back.

Problem thought #1

Acknowledging your success means you are showing off

→ New thought: It is okay to talk about my life and work and acknowledge my successes as long as I make sure I don’t do it in a way that comes across as showing off. There are people whom I admire who openly talk about their successes in a tactful and inspiring way so I know it is possible to do it and this is what I aim to do.

Problem thought #2

Acknowledging your success is insensitive to others

→ New thought: Acknowledging your success in a way that is mindful of other people’s situation is considerate, sensitive and can even be inspiring.

Problem thought #3

I don’t deserve my success

→ New thought: I have been lucky to benefit from the help of others in my successes but I also know I have worked hard to get where I am. It is okay to feel proud of what I achieved while recognising and being grateful for the help I received along the way.

Problem thought #4

Acknowledging your success will jinx it

→ New thought: While there is an element of luck in everything we do, believing that I can jinx my successes simply by talking about them is the equivalent of narrowing everything I have worked for to pure luck, which in turn undermines how I should feel about my work. The successes I am proud of aren’t lottery tickets win, so I can stop behaving as though they were.

Problem thought #5

Women successful in business are unattractive

→ New thought: Media and movies in my youth have portrayed successful business women as bad people who end up alone. But in real life I know many inspiring successful women who are also good people and who live happy fulfilling lives.

Changing my thought process has allowed me to replace guilt with pride all the while living up to my values, which include being humble and sensitive to others. My old thoughts do come back all the time, bringing with them the guilt that wants to push me in a corner where no one can see what I think I shouldn’t show. But I have become much more aware of them and can now quickly transform these negative thoughts into positive, helpful ones.

Freed from guilt and shame, I can put my energy into being and showing up as the person I really want to be. I can allow others to get to know the real me (it’s up to them if they like it or not!) In other words, I can work with myself instead of against myself.

Do you also find that you can be your own worst enemy? Is negative thinking holding you back from all the things you want to achieve in life?

Our emotions and thoughts can be our toughest enemies. But when channelled the right way, our emotions can help us express ourselves better, build better and stronger relationships and help us make better decisions that are aligned with our values.

Are you looking to be in better control of your emotions?

You can book a free discovery session with me to see if my program could be of use to you.

Email with the subject: Discovery Session

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