When Your Success Elicits Negative Reactions


Success is such a wonderful thing.

So why are some of us afraid to reach for it? We likely all want to be successful in areas that are important to us and we want those who we are close to and invested in to be successful too. We may also wish to share the news of our success or opportunities with our closest people. Yet success can so quickly illicit envy, disdain, and even hostility in many of our relationships that often we begin fearing for our relationships and so we begin avoiding success or begin believing we aren’t cut out for it.

You likely have had the experience of an important success or new idea that you were very pleased and proud of and then having the wind knocked out of you when someone of some importance to you made a disparaging comment about it, diminished your achievement in some way, or did something to “bring you down to earth.” Maybe they told you you were unrealistic, you should want less, you should be okay with what you already have, it isn’t that big of a deal, talk about how when they did it they were better, you only were able to achieve it because of something they helped you with, and the list goes on.

Why is it that your success may be perceived as someone else’s failure?

Or that your gain is someone else’s loss. There are many potential reasons, but one I find particularly interesting and useful to understand is social comparison theory. It suggests that we constantly evaluate ourselves and our standing in the world based on those around us. This is true for all sorts of evaluations. Weight, health, beauty, wealth, intelligence, status success, and so forth. Most of us have the social skills and impulse control to keep our envy and social comparisons quiet but it often comes out in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways.

What is social comparison theory

According to Psychology Today: “Social comparison theory states that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others they perceive as somehow faring better or worse. People sometimes compare themselves to others as a way of fostering self-improvement, self-motivation, and a positive self-image. As a result, humans are constantly evaluating themselves and others across a variety of domains, such as attractiveness, wealth, intelligence, and success. These evaluations can also promote judgmental, biased, and overly competitive or superior attitudes. Some research shows that people who regularly compare themselves to others often experience negative feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt and remorse, and engage in destructive behaviors.”

So, how do we cope with the challenge of wanting success (as we define it) without losing the support and care from those around us?

First, know that your success may be perceived as a threat to others.

Social comparison theory would predict that your success could make others in your life feel pretty bad. This is especially true if your success is in an area that is highly valued by others. It is not your fault. Choosing to not excel or be successful will not help anyone feel better…not them and not you. You can not be less successful than you’re meant to be in order to make others feel better. That simply is not your work. It is not how it works. In truth, their feeling bad has absolutely nothing to do with your success. It is rather a result of their belief in their lack of success or inability to achieve something. It could also be a belief that somehow your success threatens their sense of self (which it does not).

Second, be mindful that others may not share your happiness with you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t love you or care about you.

It is important to remember this phrase…I love you, but I don’t care what you think when dealing with people close to you. You can love someone and they can love you without each other’s opinions meaning anything. There is a tendency to give more energy and emphasis to the opinions of those you care about. But remember that people are people. Everyone has the potential of reacting via social comparison theory, even those who love you. Their opinions can not ever be more important than your own.

Third, don’t take it personal when people may be more distant from you after learning of your success or if they try to diminish your happiness about it.

Again, some people are better able to manage their feelings and impulses about this than others. Some are genuinely happy for your success. For those who are not, it has absolutely nothing to do with you and your success. It is NOT about you. The way people act and treat you is about THEM, how you react is about YOU. If you take it personally, you are agreeing with their perception of you and your success. Don’t. It is not about you.

Here’s to your success!!



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