Using the example of losing weight as a goal, Psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud explores some new research which suggests that Fear of Success could explain why we so often persist yet fail at attaining our goals
Dr Raj Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist
Now here’s a crazy idea – you don’t succeed at your goals – such as losing weight let’s say, because deep down you fear success. This apparently dumb notion is in fact quite a well respected concept in psychology! It was originally pioneered by a famous psychoanalyst writing in the 1930’s, and has been gaining wider currency steadily since.
Fear of Success or as it’s referred to in the field – FS – was in fact specifically thought to refer to women, but now, particularly in the field of elite athletics it’s now found to be widespread in men. Fear of Success is about the idea that the consequences of triumph may be such that you prefer not to be successful. This means that you covertly sabotage your efforts or chances of achieving a goal.
Women, for example, may feel that accomplishment is not particularly feminine ie coming first in a race, or being the best in a group, and as result suffer from fear of success.
One consequence of achievement in any field is that you might provoke jealousy and you might become a target of retaliation. Success also means you stand out and attract attention. For some this could be quite stressful, or at the very least uncomfortable. Another problem is having drawn attention to yourself by achieving success, ie being better than those around you, the pressure is now on to maintain that success. Failure, after success, appears under these conditions, worse than not having been successful at all.
Part of feminine identity, it is argued, is to be a prop to others around you and commiserate with stress and failures. Once you stand out as being a success, then maybe you will lose that network of friendships and support. How do you sympathise for example with those who are struggling to achieve what you have when you did it? Success might remove you from a group you rely on. You can’t all grumble together about how tough life is when you’ve gone and shown that actually success is possible, and all that group moaning is in fact counterproductive.
The way your friends will rationalize your ability to attain a goal, they have long hankered after but failed thus far, is that you had some unfair advantage. They won’t accept the truth – which is that you did it through your own efforts as this is too uncomfortable. So their minds will turn somersaults to attribute your victory to some unmerited edge. This will just corrode your relationships further.
Women might be most fearful of the impact of success on their relationships because psychologists argue women depend more than men do on affiliations for their sense of well-being. Men derive more satisfaction from competition and winning and therefore are less likely to be bothered by the relationship impact of being a winner. In relationships, it’s argued, men are looking more for respect, fear and awe, while women gain more from affection.
If success threatens how liked you are, then it follows some might fear success because it may mean less popularity. Getting along in any group requires you not to be too different. How many millionaires are surrounded by impoverished friends? Surely once you win that lottery you move house and surround yourself with the similarly well off?
This neatly brings us to another point – some success can be shared – if indeed you do win the lottery you might spread some of your good fortune around a bit, not least because this might help defray inevitable jealousy. But what about the kind of success that can’t be shared – like becoming slim?
Another problem with the kind of jealousy that success might provoke is that your friends could collude to try and help you now fail. You might find that, mysteriously, the offerings of cream cakes and éclairs, suddenly seem to step up from your friends, once you hit your low weight target. It could be your fear of success stems from a realisation that in the face of that kind of mass sabotage onslaught you will succumb.
Moving away from social rejection as a key underlying driver for Fear of Success – there are other reasons you may self-sabotage. It could be that success may have other implications. You might find yourself under pressure to maintain the success. This might require longer term changes you find impossible to contemplate. You may prefer the diet cycle where you make an effort for a while then languish back into bad habits with relief because you hate the strain of being ‘good’.
Once you achieve success you may wonder ‘what next?’. It could be that at an unconscious level having to struggle helps you avoid other problems in your life. Once you no longer have the excuse that you were putting all your effort into losing weight, for example, then it could be you will be forced to now confront that relationship problem or your other issues.
Here’s another deep fear. Suppose you believe you can’t get a date because you are over-weight. Now being over weight may become a convenient excuse to not getting out there and confronting the stress of socialising and possible rejection. You are waiting to lose weight before you put yourself on that dating website with all the consequent fears and stresses. Once you lose the weight then you no longer have those convenient excuses. So what if you are all slim as you wanted to be and still find you can’t get a date? This forces you to confront an even more unpalatable possibility – you have even deeper problems?
The lack of success helps keep you from entering other dark areas.
So in order to release yourself from self-sabotaging ask yourself if deep down what’s really holding you back is fear of success. Get rid of this and all of a sudden you might find – you get what you want.
Gender differences in fear of success: A preliminary validation of the Performance Success Threat Appraisal Inventory Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Available online 1 March 2011 Nathalie André, Jonathan N. Metzler