When I was sixteen and received my O-level (the formal exams most school children took at this age in the UK in the 1980s) results (which were good though by no means outstanding) I remember informing my mother of these results, possibly with some trepidatious excitement and an uncertain, tentative sense of pride, only to meet with a stony-faced, tight-lipped response and the single, indifferent, bored, monosyllabic utterance: ‘Oh?’
There was no ‘congratulations’ card. No suggestion of celebrating with a meal. A small spongecake, perhaps? Out of the question. Perhaps partially as a result of this and not altogether dissimilar experiences, when I gained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I attended neither graduation ceremony. But why do I suggest the two things may be linked?
THE POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF THE ENVIOUS PARENT – FEAR OF SUCCESS :
An envious parent resents his/her child’s successes, achievements, and accomplishments and may even feel disdain for this child’s expressions of pride; this envy may be unconscious and the parent may rationalize it by telling him/herself that s/he does not encourage the child’s feelings of mastery in order to prevent him/her from becoming arrogant or conceited. S/he may express this envy through overt and withering comments such as: ‘Oh, you think you’re such a big shot!’, or in more subtle ways such as making a point of not sharing in the child’s joy when s/he is successful.
The underlying cause of such envy is usually the parent’s own sense of inadequacy and failure together with a narcissistic resentment of having the limelight shifted away from him/her in favor of the child.
Also, if the parent is possessive, s/he may view the child’s successes as steps towards independence and freedom from dependency which instills in the parent feelings of anxiety in relation to being no longer needed and, potentially, abandoned.
Indeed, the relationship between parent and child may be enmeshed whereby the parent is unable to distinguish the child’s individual and separate needs from his/her (the parent’s) own and therefore feels bitter about the child having successes of which s/he (the parent) has been deprived.
Such negative reactions by the parent in response to the child’s successes can have an insidious and cumulative effect culminating in the child coming to fear success. Similarly, the child may come to feel embarrassed by even small successes and desperately try to play them down (not to be confused with false modesty which is something different, of course) or, when s/he achieves success, feel strongly that s/he does not deserve it or that absolutely anyone could easily have accomplished the same.
In the individual’s mind, success has become strongly associated with rejection and, thus, must be avoided at all costs, lest it leads to shame and confusion.
COGNITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH FEAR OF SUCCESS :
We may rationalize our deep-rooted fear of success in various ways. A study conducted by Deeter-Schmelz and Ramsey (2001) found that those who feared success tended to have thoughts such as :
- once at the top there follows a desperate struggle to maintain your position
- others see successful people as aloof and arrogant
- people who become successful change for the worse
- the cost of success outweighs its rewards
Whereas those NOT afraid of success tend to have thoughts such as :
- others look up to you when you’re at the top
- achievement commands respect
- success opens up many new doors
IMPOSTOR SYNDROME :
Linked to fear of success, there is also a phenomenon known as IMPOSTOR SYNDROME, first described by Clance and Imes (1978). This occurs when we achieve some success but feel we don’t deserve it; therefore, we feel like a fraud or impostor – as if we shouldn’t inhibit the position we do.
Those who experience impostor syndrome tend to have thoughts such as:
- my success is mainly due to luck
- talking about my success makes me feel silly and embarrasses me
- when I compare myself to others with similar achievements, I feel they deserve theirs but I don’t
- I worry people will soon see through me and I’ll be exposed as the idiot I truly am
- when people praise me, I feel like I’m being given something I have not earned and it makes me feel extremely uncomfortable
- in the scheme of things, my so-called achievements mean nothing
- my success will come to an abrupt end anytime now
When the fear of success reaches phobic proportions, positive visualization exercises, hypnotherapy, or a combination of the two can prove effective.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).