Guilt For Success - Performance Coaching - Fort Lauderdale - The Psychology Group

Guilt for Success: What Happens When We Leave the Pack

By: Dr. Jamie Long

To be successful means to stand out from your social group, colleagues, family members, and friends. It requires a fair amount of courage to surpass the in-group as there’s always a strong pull to remain at an equal level. As long as you stay within the confines of average and expected, you will blend right in. Blending in can feel intoxicatingly comfortable while standing out will naturally evoke feelings of maladaptive guilt.

It’s dangerous to both succeed and to fail. If I succeed, I’m going to have to face the guilt, if I fail I’m going to have to face the shame of failure.

Dr. Rob Maldonado

Dr. Rob Maldonado on the “Debi and Dr. Rob Show” (episode 43: Shame and Guilt of Success and Transcending the Ego) explains that if we succeed, there is a natural tendency to experience guilt. If we fail there is a natural tendency to feel shame. And this is especially true if we are trying to keep up with appearances and are concerned with what others think.

Why Do I Feel Guilty for My Success?

From an evolutionary perspective, one could argue that we’re hardwired to remain within the confines of our pack.

Pack Mentality. Wolves naturally organize themselves into packs. A social group that is full of complexity, drama, and vicious conflict that, ironically, is relatively stable. By assembling into a group, the wolf pack effectively hunts large prey, safely rears their young and protects their territory. On rare occasions, a wolf leaves his natal pack, becoming a lone wolf. And he does so at great cost, accepting the dangers of no longer having the protection of the other wolves, risking injury, starvation, and even death.

In a sense, humans are pack animals too. Like our wolf brethren, we thrive from social behavior, we follow leaders and adhere to our placement in a sophisticated hierarchal order. From an evolutionary perspective, one could argue that we’re hardwired to remain within the confines of our pack.

The idea that we can go it alone defies the natural world. We are like other animals, we need ties to others to survive…we live in the shelter of each other.

Dr. Sue Johnson, ‘Love Sense’

For humans, pack membership comes in many forms such as peer groups, the community, colleagues, and our families. Our natal pack–our family of origin–is the first group we belong to. It’s there that we are conditioned and molded to become a socially acceptable person (hopefully). We grow up with rules, consequences, and expectations whether directly stated or implied. Our behavior is shaped through discipline and we might even be guilted or shamed if we don’t follow the rules of the household. The way we’re parented in childhood is the birthplace of our relationship with guilt which can be healthy or unhealthy.

Healthy Guilt vs Unhealthy Guilt

Healthy Guilt is a social construct to help us conform to the civil society at large and is a very normal part of healthy functioning. Therefore, when we do something that is incongruent with our values, we experience guilt. This guilt causes us to course-correct and resume normal, adaptive living. What kind of person doesn’t experience any guilt? Probably not someone you would want in your inner circle.

Our families might have used guilt and shame to modify our behavior and to keep us in line with the status quo. And sometimes the status quo is middle-of-the-road, mediocrity. If we make more money or achieve more than our family, siblings, and friends, we become an “other.” Because we are no longer conformed to the in-group, we consequently experience unhealthy guilt.

In peer groups, newfound success might be met with adversity. When we exceed or reach equal status of a peer that was once ahead of us, we send shock waves through the complex ranking order. Surpassing someone higher on the pecking order is threatening to the “alpha” and they might respond with judgment and rejection. Whatever the reaction of the alpha and his followers, know that it comes from a place of trying to maintain conformity. So if you become filled with unhealthy guilt, realize that it’s simply a natural process. But now you have a choice: let the guilt compel you back to conformity or reject the guilt and embrace your success.

What to do About Success Guilt

  • Get clarity on what success means to you, not what you were told success means. Write down your personal definition of success. If you’re pursuing success that is personally meaningful to you, you’re less vulnerable to experience guilt for the success.
  • Ask yourself if you consider yourself successful by your own definition. The opinion of yourself is the one that matters most.
  • Stop hustling for your self-worth. Stop worrying about appearances and playing to the crowd. If you want to feel real success, rather than just see it on paper, you have to succeed like no one’s watching.
  • Ask yourself why you want to be successful. If no one knew of your success, would it still be worth pursuing? If the answer is ‘no,’ then you’re performing for appearance’s sake rather than your true self. Playing to the crowd will increase success guilt.
  • Listen to the Right Voice. The right voice is the sound of your true self’s inner wisdom, your inner knowing. The inner critic is the voice of others, not the true self. We are not born with the inner critic/saboteur, it develops over time from negative experiences.
  • Explore your feelings of guilt and shame, don’t avoid or stuff them. The self-awareness you’ll gain from exploring the origins and patterns of these emotions is critical for personal growth. And this knowledge will help you discern when you’re performing for others vs. yourself.
  • Realize that ‘deserve’ has nothing to do with it. No one deserves to succeed just as no one deserves to fail. Success or failure depends on the actions, lack of actions, timing, and opportunity that precedes the end result.

Moving forward, know that guilt is a natural part of being successful because exceeding our group defies the natural rules of pack mentality. However, you can rise above the pain and anxiety that comes with separating from the pack. It’s scary and risky to be a lone wolf, but as the saying goes, with great risk often comes great reward–as long as it’s done for the right reasons.


Dr. Jamie Long is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and co-owner of The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale. She specializes in anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Call (954) 488-2933 x1 or email today to discuss how her services can help you.

Copyright © 2019 Dr. Jamie Long, all rights reserved.