Survivor’s guilt and the fear of success

Photo by Sora Shimazaki on

Most of the successful black women are the first in their home. The first to graduate university, the first to work in corporate, the first to own a car, the first and sometimes the only. Even though this can lead to a sense of accomplishment. The fulfilment of a vow that every black child who grew up in poverty makes; to be their family’s hero. To be successful so they can build their parents a home and change the family narrative of poverty and failure.

Dr Harville Hendriks in his book ‘Getting the love you want’ teaches about the parts system. That as human beings, we are living with contradictory part of ourselves. He explains it well in the context of a relationship, where part of you is loving towards your partner and the other only sees the worst in them.  Another example is when the brave, daring part of you is seeking a relationship and the fearful part of you or the protector as he calls it sabotages any relationship you have to protect the alienated/hidden part of you. This hidden part is usually our inner child that is trying to protect us from a similar wounding/traumatic event that may have happened to us as a child.

Survivor’s guilt is a type of self-guilt that takes place after a traumatic event. People may feel guilty for surviving or avoiding some type of harm when others did not. Many successful black women, like any survivors of trauma; whether it is the direct trauma of poverty or the shared trauma of racial oppression in its many facets, struggle with survivor’s guilt. We harbor a subconscious belief that our success is a betrayal to our parents and family. That our success highlights the unfairness of the fact that we have opportunities that they couldn’t have. That we were able to do more with our lives than they did. The more successful we are the more unfair it is that they couldn’t be.

We may hold the subconscious belief that the more successful we become the stronger the contrast between us and them. That we may be demonstrating that we are more gifted than they are, wiser than they are, more responsible than they were. It removes them from the seat of being our hero to being somewhat inferior to us. So we don’t talk about our ambitions around them, we pretend it is because we don’t think they will understand. But the real reason is because we feel guilty that we want even more success, when what is we have is already so much more than they have.

To appease our guilt we find ways to sabotage ourselves. We put on the brakes to our career advancement. We avoid taking actions that will accelerate our success.  We put a subconscious ceiling to the amount that we are willing to earn. If we accidentally exceed that amount we find ways to dissipate it. We register and drop out of advanced degrees. We delay our career advancement so long that when we finally advance it is no longer a big deal.  We hide ourselves at work and complain that we are not acknowledged when we hate having positive attention drawn to us. We project our lack of forward movement to those in authority so that we don’t have to deal with the real truth. When the real truth is that we feel like impostors, the ones that got away, when others didn’t.

Author: Busisiwe Hlatswayo.

I help black women overcome the subconscious beliefs that keep (delay) them from advancing in their careers. I help them navigate workplace issues that are at the intersection of race and gender.

Published by Hlatswayobusisiwe

MBA (Henley), Career Coach and Founder Black Women in the workplace

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