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The Slipperiest Rung on the Ladder of Success May Be Your Own Fear of Winning

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“In this world there are only two tragedies,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “One is not getting what one wants. The other is getting it.” In Overcoming the Fear of Success (Seaview, $10.95), psychotherapist Martha Friedman, 65, explains why Wilde was right. The book took her two years, partly because she maintained her teaching load at New York Medical College and the New School for Social Research, but also because Dr. Friedman was still struggling with some of the very “self-sabotage” she writes about. Among admirers of the book are novelists Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who calls it “a beautiful key to so many of the locks formed in childhood,” and Erica Jong, who says, “It will do more good than a thousand scholarly tomes. I learned a great deal.” Friedman, who has just been appointed to the faculty of Cornell Medical College, lives in a Manhattan high-rise with her husband, Chick, a retired civil engineer. There she discussed with Eric Levin of PEOPLE the ways we thwart our own best efforts.

Don’t people fear failure more than success?

Perhaps, but fear of failure is mainly a rational and conscious thing. It never produces as much anxiety as fear of success. This is because fear of success resides mostly in the unconscious mind, which is very powerful, and it stems from childhood experiences.

How do you define success?

Not by fame and fortune. Internal success is doing the kind of work you really enjoy, doing it competently and feeling good about yourself. Success also means having a stable, satisfying love life. One big symptom of fear of success is being able to get your career together but not your personal life, or vice versa. I want to emphasize, by the way, that many people in our society fail because of illness, racism, sexism, war or other factors not of their own making. That’s not fear of success. What I’m talking about is unconscious self-defeating behavior.

What signals self-defeating behavior?

The warning signs are almost limitless. Do you feel that people wouldn’t like you if they really knew you? Do you habitually shun the limelight? Do you have difficulty accepting a compliment? Do you feel evil when you compete? Are you a workaholic? Do you feel superior to the work you do? Do you have difficulty making decisions? Do Sundays depress you? Are you generous to a fault, aggressive to a fault or objective to a fault? Do you feel sex is too strenuous if you have to get up early in the morning? Are you shy? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you have at least some degree of fear of success.

When does this fear begin?

During childhood. For instance, in families where Father or Mother is always right—”and don’t you forget it.” If you got the silent treatment when you disagreed as a child, or were criticized out of all proportion, then you’re likely to see the adult world as peopled with frightening authority figures. Passivity is programmed into you. On the other hand, if your parents extravagantly praised every little thing you did—good, bad or indifferent—you may grow up doubting yourself and suspecting that all praise is false. Behind this praise often lies a fear on the parents’ part that the child is weak and can’t take any letdown. What’s needed is an appropriate spectrum of responses tied to actual performances.

What about people spurred on to achievement because their parents predicted they’d never amount to anything?

Are they really successes? I know a man who grew up in just such a family. His parents mercilessly ridiculed him for watching too much TV, and out of a desire for revenge he became determined to succeed. He went into the television business and in fact became a producer of some note. But when I met him, he bit his fingernails horribly, drank too much, smoked too much, had colitis and couldn’t make any of his love relationships last. This man has to work out his anger at his parents before he can be happy. I can’t repeat this often enough: Success based on anything but internal fulfillment is bound to be empty.

In what other ways do parents plant seeds of self-doubt in their children?

Parents unwittingly assign roles to their children—the smart one, the dumb one, the quiet one—and children quickly learn they’d better play those roles if they want to keep their parents’ love. Children will do anything for them, even fail if that’s what they want. Unconsciously, breaking out of those roles in adulthood car make one feel disloyal and guilty.

So people fail in order to avoid guilt?

Absolutely. Fear of success can result in not getting what you want because you think you don’t deserve it, and you think that way because you feel guilty. One of the biggest things you can feel guilty about is winning the Oedipal sweepstakes.

Would you explain?

Actually, it’s an easy concept to grasp. In psychoanalysis the Oedipus complex is the unconscious tendency of a child—between the ages of 3 and 6—to be attached to the parent of the opposite sex and hostile to the parent of the same sex, whom the child also needs. The child wants one parent exclusively, but fears the anger of the other. Winning ultimately means losing, because you’ve gotten something you know you don’t deserve, and you feel guilty about having bested the other parent.

How does this come about in a family?

When parents don’t fulfill each other, they often use the children to fulfill themselves. The question “Whom do you love better, Mommy or Daddy?” is not innocuous baby talk. Calling upon children to mediate or take sides in family battles, using them as allies against the other spouse, is dangerous to a child’s mental health.

But how does Oedipal guilt lead to fear of success?

Take the case of a young man I’ll call Rick who hit it very, very big as a rock star. Still, he felt all his concerts and records were worthless, and he was plagued by anxiety. His father was a burly macho type who had always ridiculed him because he was no good in sports. His mother, an ex-showgirl, was lonely and bitter. Rick’s father had his beer, TV sports and his business. Rick’s mother had—well, Rick. The more success Rick had in music, the more he unconsciously felt guilty and terrified that something awful was going to happen to him. If his father had accepted Rick for who he was, and if his mother hadn’t made him feel so fused to her, Rick would have been much happier.

Is sibling rivalry a factor?

Yes; one of the worst things parents can do is hold up one child as a model for the others. If every accomplishment is used by the parents to belittle another sibling, then success becomes equated in the preferred child’s mind with hurting other people. That’s inhibiting. Yet the child is driven to keep succeeding in order to keep winning the parents’ love. The double message creates tremendous anxiety. It’s okay for parents to acknowledge that they don’t love all their children equally as long as they don’t give preferential treatment.

Do women fear success more?

My feeling is that the fear afflicts both sexes, but it’s complicated for women by society’s traditional definition of their role. You find that successful women frequently had mothers who gave them a lot of support. The same is true of successful men and their fathers. And I mean unqualified support, not the double message of “Do whatever you want, but make me proud.” Double messages are tough, because you feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t, which leads to paralysis of effort.

Do perfectionists fear success?

Yes. Their parents may have had ridiculously high standards and never given them the approval they needed no matter what they did. Procrastination is another symptom. These people stack the deck by putting last-minute pressure on themselves. They avoid competency. People who cram for exams have a similar problem.

Why do apparently successful people often belittle their accomplishments?

It’s a self-pacifier. If you tell yourself you haven’t really made it, you don’t have to be so anxious. Why do people sometimes break down in some way just as they achieve success? They may fear retribution so much that they unconsciously bring disasters on themselves to atone. It sounds strange, but some people so believe that they will be killed for their excellence that they beat fate to the punch by committing suicide.

How can fear of success be overcome?

First we have to recognize that we have it, and for this we have to look at ourselves as we really are. We may find we don’t like ourselves all that much. Then we have to delve into our pasts and discover why we have such low self-esteem and how our upbringing programmed us. For some of us, this may require therapy or counseling. It did in my case.

You were a victim of this fear?

Yes. Partially because my older sister had polio as a girl, I was my father’s favorite. I worked terribly hard to please him, especially because he let me know he had wanted a son, not another daughter. There’s obviously more to it than that, but what I’ve discovered through marrying, raising three kids, starting graduate school at 35 and getting my doctorate at 55 is that overcoming fear of success is a lifelong process—but a satisfying one. I am what is known as a late bloomer. I don’t mind that. It’s so much better than never having bloomed at all.