There is a lot of talk about why people with mental illness self-sabotage. The other day, while reading online, I saw this quote: “I am afraid of two things equally – success and failure.” I took notice when I read it because it sums up my entire life and the topic of self-sabotage comes up a lot in support groups I have facilitated. It isn’t surprising that many people fear failure.
Fearing success, however, is an entirely different psychological quagmire. Why would someone fear being successful? What could possibly be the downside of success? The answer is a lot more basic than you might think.
Mental Illness as an Identity
Mental illness, in many ways, is part of someone’s identity. Like it or not, it does factor in to making us whole.
Many people with mental illness, myself included, don’t like this particular part of our make-up, but we are used to it. It has been there since the beginning and, for better or worse, we are used to living with it. As an example, I am used to the symptoms, the limitations, and, yes, even the failures having bipolar disorder brings.
Because of the way we treat mental illness in our society, people are often sick for a long time before they begin to receive any sort of care. The treatments are slow and can take months, or even years, to be effective. That is a long time to “get used” to something. It is no surprise that mental illness becomes a large part of someone’s identity – and not just because the illness is linked directly to our emotions, thoughts, and personalities.
Mourning the Loss of Mental Illness as an Identity
Because mental illness is part of who we are, there is a mourning process when it goes away. Yes, even though it’s a bad thing. When success shows up and threatens to change our core identity from “person who is sick” to “person who is successful” we, naturally, get nervous. Just because we don’t like being sick doesn’t mean we aren’t used to it.
Then success comes along and tries to mess with that? The phrase, “Oh, hell no” immediately springs to mind. I am reminded of crayon scribbles on the wall of a child’s room. Parents work to prevent it, are unhappy when it occurs, but when someone tries to paint over it 15 years later, they break down in tears. They’ve become so used to the scribbles that they became “part of” the room.
None of these are good reasons to self-sabotage, mind you. Just because an action is understandable doesn’t make it a good one. I understand why I over-eat (food is delicious) but that doesn’t mean I’m making good choices.
I believe that when people work toward goals for a reason and then throw it all away because they’re scared, it is the equivalent of handing the football to the other team right before you score a touchdown.
All change, even good change, is scary. Those of us who live with mental illness are used to being brave. There is no better time to be brave then when we are about to achieve our goals.
This article previously appeared on Psych Central as “Why Do People With Mental Illness Self-Sabotage?“