Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Does Success Make You Sick?

Achievements should make us glad and proud. Often they have the opposite effect.

Key points

  • Internalizing harsh warnings or truisms while young is a form of trauma that can predispose the brain to fear all forms of joy, such as victory.
  • Having been told repeatedly and forcefully that one doesn't deserve success hinders one's ability to accept, much less relish, any victory.
  • Working to attain success is stressful, so is struggling emotionally to sustain and own success.
  • Success can be inherently terrifying when it brings about significant life changes and requires massive effort to maintain.

Remember when you won that race or aced that test or got that raise or bought that house? Remember earning that degree? Remember someone special saying "yes"? Remember that ecstatic rush? Then — remember those warning sirens screaming in your head?

Wah-wah-wah-wah! Forbidden zone!

Some of us can't savor our success. Our minds turn triumph into terror. Why? Somewhere back there, others persuaded us that victory was wicked, tricky, toxic, wrong — especially, or only, ours.

So now we mistrust opportunities. We stifle success-building skills. We stall, reverse, procrastinate our way into self-hating stasis. Then if we succeed at anything, regardless, we feel scared and even sick: emotionally — guilt, shame, dread — and physically.

Studies reveal that stress impairs bodily functioning and spurs disease. But how were we persuaded, by whom, under what duress? Tracing those twisted messages, naming their messengers, can help us de-claw and defuse them.

Do any of these distortions ring a bell?

  • You don't deserve success because you're stupid, ugly, evil, weak, or otherwise inferior.
  • Success is earned — and you're a lazy slacker and/or shameless cheat.
  • Whatever victory seems yours, you stole or obtained by mistake.
  • You're an imposter, faking everything. Sooner or later, everyone will know.
  • Life is innately tragic and ironic. All joy must be followed — and punished — by pain.
  • Your success means that others lost. How dare you celebrate?
  • You won not outright, on your merits, but because grifters are using you as their dupe in some scam.
  • Successful people are all narcissists.
  • Who do you think you are?
  • The more you gain, the more you stand to lose.
  • Seeking material success is avarice, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
  • Success attracts attention, and the successful are constantly, mercilessly, watched, and judged.
  • Friends will abandon you because you've changed, leaving you in the hands of pretenders and shallow fans.
  • You're just a big fish in a small, insignificant, pitiful-in-the-real-world pond.
  • Success is fleeting, false, and ultimately meaningless.
  • You have other responsibilities. You're needed elsewhere.
  • It's lonely at the top. Prepare for misery. The only way to go from there is down.

Reading these statements in this depersonalized way, listed like items in a textbook rather than inherent truths, weakens their grip.

We must ask: What inspired those who terrorized us into hating or fearing our potential? What inspired them to cancel us before we could begin? Some of them envied us. Some aimed to shield us from defeat. Some had been traumatized by their failures. Some believed they spoke for higher powers. Some despised us. And yes, some of their assertions contain micrograins of truth. Life can be sad. But mainly, these were wielded not as simple well-meant warnings but as weapons used against us: knives and landmines wrapped in lies.

We must learn to accept victory bit by bit, not because we are godless greedy gluttons, but to own whatever we have won. And appreciate that every tiny joy is its victory — over discomfort, hunger, ennui, isolation, confusion, unrest. So, within every hour, we can win.

More from S. Rufus
More from Psychology Today