Success Guilt: Do You Downplay Your Success?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Big Leap" by Gay Hendricks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you often find yourself downplaying your success? Why do people feel guilty about becoming successful?

Many people feel the need to downplay their successes to avoid making other people look bad or feel bad about themselves. Further, they may even subconsciously self-sabotage to protect those whom they believe will be hurt by their success.

Keep reading to learn about the psychology of success guilt, according to Gay Hendricks.

Stop Downplaying Your Success

Hendricks identifies a few ways in which we could imagine that our success would have a negative impact on others. If you hold this type of false belief, you may feel guilty when you have great achievements, and your self-sabotage will be a means of protecting those you believe are being harmed by your success. One variant of this is a belief that you were a burden, likely on your parents. If you fundamentally believe you’ve been a burden in your life, you’ll believe that your own success will only further burden others, because anything you produce is an extension of you. 

Another variant of this is a belief that your success is casting a shadow on someone else. Hendricks points out that this one is common among children who were gifted, and thus consistently outperformed others, for example, their siblings or classmates. Often such children are made to feel bad about it, by their parents, teachers, or resentful siblings or peers.  

If you’ve experienced this, you may have an underlying fear of resentment from others if you outperform them, so you suffer from “success guilt”, and you feel like you need to “tone it down” so you’re not in the spotlight. Hendricks points out that this could mean limiting your degree of success through sabotage, or not actually being able to enjoy success if you achieve it.

Why Isn’t Everybody Happy for Your Success?

If you feel that you have to downplay your success in order to avoid making someone else feel or look bad, you might want to consider how you talk about it. Research has shown that people tend to have lower opinions of winners when the winner expresses positive emotions about their victory. Participants were more likely to view a winner positively when they were less expressive and more humble in their victory. 

Aside from that, if others react negatively to your success, it’s more likely about them than you. It’s possible your success may be bringing up self-critical thoughts in others, based on their past experiences or false beliefs. It may be triggering their own feelings of inadequacy or highlighting the failures they experienced. Don’t allow this to hold you back, but do practice compassion, and let it inform your reaction to those people. It might help to find something to give them praise for, thus allowing them to feel proud of themselves along with you. 

Success Guilt: Do You Downplay Your Success?

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  • How to overcome the psychological barriers to success and fulfillment
  • Why most people have a self-imposed limit to happiness
  • How to identify your own false beliefs and stop self-sabotaging

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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