Thursday, February 14, 2008

Are You Starving Yourself of Success?

By Noah St. John

October 20, 1997 dawned like any other day in the New England college town where I attended school. As a 30-year-old Literature major, I was two semesters away from graduation and working on my first book. What I didn't know was that by the end of the day, my life would be changed forever.

That night, I went to a seminar on eating disorders. Although I didn't have an eating disorder, I'd known many people who had suffered from anorexia or bulimia, and I thought the seminar might shed some light on what caused these conditions.

The speaker at the seminar began to describe why someone develops an eating disorder, and said that these individuals are not merely trying to lose weight or look like a supermodel. Rather, she described a person who was hypersensitive, felt overly responsible for everyone else's feelings, and suffered from a deeply negative self-image. All these factors combined to cause the person to simply refuse to eat.

In short, the person wasn't starving herself to lose weight -- but in attempt to "not be here." Her research had also shown that eight times as many women develop eating disorders as men.

The Moment My Life Changed Forever

After I heard this description, I said to myself, "Wow, that sounds just like me!" Even though I'd won numerous scholarships, awards and accolades, I had often wondered what I was doing on Earth and certainly felt responsible for everyone else's happiness.

"Why, then," I asked myself, "did I not develop an eating disorder? And why do eight times as many women develop eating disorders as men?"

All of a sudden, I knew the answer to both questions. It was the moment my life made sense for the first time.

I suddenly realized that women in Western culture have been told -- and believe unconsciously -- that their worth or value as a person comes from their physical appearance. (Notice how this message is reinforced by an unforgiving media.) At the same time, men are taught that their worth comes from their material possessions, status, or level of success. (Neither of these, of course, is where a person's true worth comes from; it's just where both sexes have been TOLD their worth comes from.)

In that instant, I realized that rather than starving myself of food (attacking my physical body), I was starving myself of *success* -- attacking my material body because of this dangerously negative self-image.

I sat there, stunned, because I realized that I had just discovered what really causes the so-called "fear of success" and "self-sabotage." The cause was a condition that no one had ever identified before, and that therefore didn't even have a name.

I realized that the most accurate name for this condition would be *success anorexia* -- because rather than not being smart or talented enough to achieve success, the person is literally *starving themselves of success.*

"How Do I Know If I'm Starving Myself Of Success?"

Here is a simple way to see if you may be suffering from success anorexia (starving yourself of success). How many of the following descriptions you can identify with?

1. I read lots of self-help books but can't seem to use them to improve my own life.

2. I'm insecure about money or making much less than I should be making.

3. I'm in a job that doesn't allow me to express my real talents or level of true abilities.

4. I expect myself to be perfect all the time.

5. I try to be all things to all people.

6. I find it very easy to start projects and very hard to finish them.

7. I feel guilty saying "no" to other people.

8. I'm more comfortable watching others succeed than letting myself succeed.

9. I usually feel like I'm not doing enough, even when I'm doing all I can.

10. I feel responsible for everyone else's feelings.

11. I often let others win, even when I could easily win.

12. I have a very low opinion of myself, even though other people tell me I'm smart, funny, and capable.

13. I usually settle for crumbs, even though I know I deserve better.

If you can identify with 6 or more of these warning signs, you may be at risk for success anorexia.

(By the way, just as many women suffer from success anorexia as men, because women today are being told that their worth lies not only in their physical bodies, but also in their level of success.)

How To Stop Starving Yourself of Success

In my book "Permission To Succeed: Unlocking The Mystery of Success Anorexia", I identify seven steps you can take to reverse success anorexia and allow yourself to succeed. Here are a few steps you can begin today:

Step 1. Identify your Loving Mirrors. A Loving Mirror is someone who can see you for who you really are, someone who can love and support you unconditionally. While this may sound "touchy-feely," we all need the loving encouragement of someone like a coach, teacher, or mentor to become all we can be.

Make a list of the people in your life who can offer you unconditional support. If you want free resources to help you find Loving Mirrors in your life, go to for more information.

Step 2. Become willing to succeed. Few people realize that what we want is also what we fear. If you're afraid of success, no matter how many "how-to's" of success you know, you still won't let yourself succeed.

How do we overcome this? Do a Ben Franklin on yourself. Whenever Benjamin Franklin had a difficult decision to make, he would make a list of the pros and cons of the decision. Do the same thing with success.

What could possibly be a drawback to succeeding? For one thing, you may have to face your fear of the unfamiliar or people being jealous of you. What if people expect you to do and be more than you think you can?

Get the drawbacks and benefits to success down on paper and you can finally face and overcome your fears.

Step 3. Establish Goal-Free Zones. Set a time and place where you don't do anything. This is vital, because many of us are overwhelmed by our "to-do" lists every day.

In addition, people who starve themselves of success are literally addicted to goal-setting, and feel incredibly guilt-tripped if they stop, even for a moment, to take time for themselves.

I counsel my students to establish Goal-Free Zones, because this is the only way we can learn that the world won't end if we take time for ourselves. Astonishingly, this can be one of the hardest steps for people to take because of the overwhelming guilt they feel when they do something "selfish."

We are victims of circumstances within our control. One of the greatest realizations of my life was that stopping myself from success not only wasn't helping others, it was actually hurting those I care about most.

Please don't wait as long as I did.

Use these tools and give yourself permission to succeed.

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