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Fear of Success

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By Dr. Joseph A. Bailey II. M.D.

When my Mother, sister, and I (as a six year old) moved from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Wilson, North Carolina, I desperately wanted to "fit in" with my peers. During my partial first grade education in Minnesota we had learned many, many things--e.g. about the stars and planets, art, carpentry, etc.--which had caused me to enjoy learning. At first, in Wilson, I was an eager student, only to discover none of my male peers were. By not liking the consequences of being successful in my studies, I made attempts to "Dumb Down" by getting low grades--and a "black" star (signifying bad behavior) instead of a "gold" star (excellent behavior) in hopes of being accepted. Despite continuing to the point of being branded a "trouble-maker" I still was not accepted because I was "weird." Therefore, I gave up deliberately failing out of my fears of success and decided to be who I truly was, regardless of what others thought of me. I suspect this is a scenario of many bright Black youth. In African Tradition being "weird" or "different" is frowned upon and punishable by isolation from the group. This started in Ancient Africa out of fear such individuals were possessed by the "Evil Eye." By the time of African American slavery this practice had lost its reason--making it a "zombie" habit--and any Black person deemed "different" was doomed to become an "Isolated Individualist." Such rejection is an unwise decision which Black People ought to reconsider. It is from "Isolated Individualists"--forced daily to solve "impossible" problems and thus become successful and self-reliant--who are best able to offer what Black People need in order to rise above their various forms of poverty. Meanwhile, during and following slavery there were many different types of situations involving the need to fail because of a fear of success. Such situations were generated by the slave owners specializing in trying to make the Enslaved fear failing to do what they were told and how to do it. Many Slaves were fearful of failing to be successful in escape attempts while being fearful for what would happen to their families if they were successful in escaping. Some were fearful of getting caught in being successful while learning to read, write, or count. Following slavery, many ambitious ex-Slaves were fearful of White terrorists who thought they were "getting out of their place." Some feared success for this would take them away from their family and friends. Many feared success within the "crabs-in-a-barrel" syndrome whereby envious fellows going nowhere try to pull back down the escapee.

Many ambitious Black youth discover upon leaving the crowd that they are abandoned by all. Other youth--by having known no family or neighborhood role models who occupied positions of prestige and responsibility--have lowered their aspirations below the potential successful display of their talents and abilities if they took the time to cultivate them. In other words, because of a fear of success, the efforts that could bring success are often not made, even when the opportunity exists. This is an example of an "Emotive Failure"--i.e. one fails to be motivated to move out of ones comfort zone/oneself. One reason is that the anxiety that accompanies growth and change is avoided if a new failure is not risked—and therefore a try is not made. Second, the steady state of failure represented by non-achievement (and defined by others) rather than by an unsuccessful trial, is what many Black People come to know and expect. Hence, they feel safer (less psychologically discomforted) with the more familiar. A third is deeming ones friends to be more important than bettering oneself. A fourth is "I'll show you"--being a failure to spite someone. Fifth, is a low Self-Esteem, a false sense of lacking what it takes to be successful and thus an unwillingness to try. Sixth is a desire to be pitied. A seventh is fear of being embarrassed by not living up to another's (perceived) standard and therefore not trying. Starting with the difficult means the task gets easier; starting easy means it gets more difficult.

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