How To Navigate Post-Success Blues - SACAP
Management & Leadership

How to Navigate Post-Success Blues

May 31, 2024 | By Saranne Durham
Suffering post-success blues, loneliness and sadness
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It is a bit of an enigma, that you can finally reach what you have been striving for and then feel deflated instead of being elated. What you are experiencing are post-success blues. They are not uncommon and sneak into our lives after we have reached all kinds of milestones. Anyone can get them – athletes, who have just reached their marathon goal. Graduates, that triumphantly walked across the stage or matriculants who have ticked off their final school exam. Prevention is better than cure. This means that while post-success blues are not unexpected, we can buffer against them stealing the joy from our celebrations. 

What are Post-Success Blues?

Post-Success Blues are the feelings of let-down and depression which can follow reaching a goal successfully.  

The reality of post-success blues is that they often hit the highest achievers with feelings of deep emptiness. With feeling alone and empty, come tears, which are often mistaken for happy tears by outsiders. These leave the triumphant person deflated, and wondering why they worked so hard to achieve something.  

Olympic athlete, Michael Phelps, has spoken out about his post-Olympic battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. He estimates that after the Olympics up to 90% of athletes, battle post-success blues. Often in the form of depression, psychological distress or other mental health issues. This is also known as the “post-Olympic dark period”.  

Why do We Feel Down after Succeeding?

Feeling deflated after single-mindedly focusing on achieving something is not unexpected. Often, to reach a goal, you must make lifestyle adjustments and dedicate time as well as energy towards it. For example, how much you are able to socialise, what you are eating and your sleeping patterns. Then your goal is finally reached. But almost instantly, in that moment of success, a big motivating factor and sense of purpose and focus are lost. 

Depending on what you were aiming for, there can be a varied number of underlying reasons for post-success blues. Runners aiming to complete a marathon suddenly don’t have a reason to keep getting up early or improving their fitness. Matriculants who have spent 12 years working towards finishing school have lost their scholarly and minor identity. At the same time, the responsibility of crafting a future for themselves as autonomous adults is upon them. A promotion might have resulted in increased social isolation due to longer work hours or others’ envy. This can lead to underlying feelings of loneliness and depression, which are highlighted in achieving a goal. Additionally, on reaching your goal, you realise that instead of things easing up, even more needs to be done. 

3 Common Factors Linked to Post-Success Blues

  1. Readjusting to “normal” life. 
  2. Loss of routine. 
  3. Decreased support. 

Thus, after all our dedication to achieving something, we’ve done it. And are now left twiddling our thumbs. While feeling like there’s a “hole” in our lives and wondering what next to do. 

Why Success Can Feel Like Failure?

Harvard Business Review puts forward that there are several reasons why reaching the top can make you feel like you have failed. And consequently, experience post-success blues. 

3 Reasons Why Winning feels like Losing

  1. Career and Personal Goal Trade-offs: Feeling like you have cheated on yourself can result from one of two things. The first is that in order to get ahead, you have to compromise on some of your own ethical stances or beliefs. The second is that you have worked very hard so had no time for self-care, socialising with friends or being with your family. 
  2. Self-Doubt: In your eyes, you may see your attained goal as something that cannot be attributed to yourself. This is because you think that you are successful only because you were lucky or some external factor came into play, without which you would not have succeeded. 
  3. Invalidation: To some degree, you might need others to approve of your success. Thus, without validation, you might not feel like you have achieved anything. 

What is the Arrival Fallacy

Getting to where you wanted to be and then feeling let down, alone and disillusioned is also commonly known as the arrival fallacy. It is a term that Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist expert, introduced in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. 

The arrival fallacy is a psychological thought trap that many high-achievers are caught in. The premise of this trap is that as we work towards a goal, we believe that we are going to achieve it. This triggers our brain’s reward centres. Which makes us feel good and has a cognitive soothing effect. Thus, the feeling of accomplishment becomes part of our everyday being. This means that by the time we reach our goal, we have been incrementally adjusting to achieving it. Consequently, reaching it is less satisfactory than we thought it would be. 

Ironically, instead of feeling great, we experience self-doubt and then don’t feel like we are good enough. So, what happens next? We begin to search for external accomplishments to fill this void. In doing so we enter the thought trap cycle of continually seeking the next goal to feel the satisfaction of success

Avoiding Post-Success Blues

  1. Enjoy and Value the Journey: Achieving a goal doesn’t come overnight. Therefore, enjoy the process as it unfolds by recognising the lessons and gifts it brings into your life. 
  2. Hold onto Your Personal Purpose: Despite the need to become focused on your goal, you must hold onto why something drives you. What really makes you tick and what do you want in the bigger picture of your life? Without a sense of purpose underlying your striving, you may feel empty. 
  3. Define Success on Your Own Terms: Society prescribes what is deemed successful within a career and personal space. However, the reality is that what is good for one person doesn’t necessarily suit another. Additionally, what seems like a good decision career-wise in your 20s might not be the best fit in your 30s. This doesn’t mean not sticking to goals, instead, it means contextualising and re-evaluating them within your bigger life picture.  

Helping Others Define Their Goals

An excellent way to achieve goals without feeling down afterwards, is to have a coach. Coaches help contextualise goals within the bigger picture of your life. They also assist you in figuring out what your own personal goals are, outside of the expectations of others. Being a coach is a rewarding career choice. SACAP has a range of coaching courses. These are accredited by the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and approved by COMENSA. For more information on how to start becoming a coach, enquire now

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