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Fear of Success through Positive Psychology
Perhaps we are blinded to the survival value of positive emotions precisely because they are so important. Like the fish who is unaware of the water in which it swims, we take for granted a certain amount of hope, love, enjoyment, and trust because these are the very conditions that allow us to go on living. They are the fundamental conditions of existence, and if they are present, any amount of objective obstacles can be faced with equanimity, and even joy. -- Martin E.P. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The above epigraph by two of the leading proponents of positive psychology is reflective of how important positivity is to a sense of well-being and success, but many people continue to lack the ability to recognize these deficiencies in their lives when they do exist. In a "Catch-22" scenario, this negativity can feed on itself and continue to hamper individual success. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once observed that people have "nothing to fear but fear itself," but the harsher reality for some people is that the fear of success, either conscious or unconscious, keeps them from achieving their personal and professional goals in ways that baffle themselves, their friends, family, coworkers and supervisors. While it would seem reasonable to assume that most people would fear failure more, studies have shown time and again that the fear of success is a very real phenomenon that can adversely affect people throughout their lives in profound ways. Fortunately, though, there are some useful tools and techniques available in the form of positive psychology that can help address these specific fears. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is two-fold: 1) explain and define fear of success and the effect on people; and 2) explain and define positive of psychology and how it can help to overcome the fear of success. A recommended action plan for this purpose is followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Fear of Success and Its Impact on People. A wide range of psychological conditions can affect an individual's work performance, including both a fear of failure and fear of success (Horner 37); the fear of success condition is characterized by employees intentionally performing below their potential abilities because of consciously or unconsciously perceived negative consequences associated with being "successful," including the perception that significant others may be dissatisfied or unhappy with the achievements (Lowman 53). Further, there is growing evidence, that anxieties such as fear of success and fear of failure are separate but potentially interactive, constructs in understanding certain patterns of workplace undercommitment (Mulig, Haggerty, Carballosa, Cinnick, & Madden, 1985).
Specifically, a fear of success refers to "a persistent tendency to avoid behaviors that may be associated with achievement, particularly when success looms imminent, and to minimize accomplishments or attribute achievement to factors not controlled by the individual" (Horner, 1968 cited in Lowman 74). Other conditions that characterize a fear of success include a sense of low self-esteem, being preoccupied with external evaluation, and a competitive orientation (Lowman 74).
While there remains some debate over the efficacy and supporting rationale behind the fear of success construct, it has nevertheless resulted in a growing body of literature, and there is evidence that it is able to predict at least to some degree real-life work and school undercommitment phenomena. For example, studies have shown that women who suffered from free of success reported that they were more likely to become pregnant if they sensed they were about to become more successful in the workplace relative to a boyfriend or their spouse; other studies have suggested that among female clerical workers, women with a greater fear of success were more likely to evaluate their job performance negatively, even though such evaluations did not affect their job tenure (Lowman 75).
In this regard, Horner believed that such otherwise-inexplicable achievement behaviors could be explained in terms of relatively stable internal acquired dispositions; in the case of fear of success, the emphasis was on the dispositions that serve to impede achievement (Day & Meara 91). Fried-Buchalter (1997) notes that these theoretical constructs have been proposed to explain why some individuals select educational and career goals that appear inappropriately low in comparison with their abilities, engage in self-sabotaging behavior with respect to their careers, or devalue and denigrate their actual accomplishments and achievements (847).
Research by Piedmont (1996) suggests that it may be possible that fear of success is "only the resultant anxiety experienced by individuals temperamentally predisposed to experience negative affect when they are placed in a stressful situation" (139). By sharp contrast, though, Kantor (1997) believes that the fears that are typically associated with a fear of success are primal fears, such as:
Fears of being grown-up (which means having to leave a protective, sheltering womb);
Fears of being a survivor, with the concomitant survivor guilt (which means leaving people with less behind and in the lurch); and,
Being in reality (most people have learned by experience that few people can tolerate or appreciate another's achievements); in fact, "many [people] actually become hostile to others who are smart and effective people and then keep up with the Joneses by cutting the Joneses down to size" (Kantor 75).
For the purposes of this investigation, the fear of success will relate to that definition provided by Clarke (2005), who suggests that this fear relates to the feeling that, "If I do well, others will have higher expectations of me that I may not be able to meet" (124) as qualified by Chae, Estadt, Piedmont and Wicks (1995) who add that a fear of success means that an individual "may make no effort to succeed" at all (470). The implications of such fears in the workplace and in people's personal lives can have profound and long-lasting consequences for those who suffer from a fear of success.
For example, Messina and Messina (2005) report that a fear of success can result in:
A lack of effort to achieve goals you have set for yourself in school, on the job, at home, in relationships, or in your personal growth;
Self-destructive behavior: tripping yourself up to make sure you do not sustain a certain level of success or achievement you once had in school, on the job, at home, in relationships, or in your personal growth;
Problems making decisions, being unable to solve problems;
Losing the motivation or the desire to grow, achieve, and succeed;
Feeling guilt, confusion, and anxiety when you do achieve success. This leads you to falter, waver, and eventually lose your momentum;
Sabotaging any gains you made in your personal growth and mental health, because once you become healthier, a better problem solver, and more "together," you fear that no one will pay attention to you. You are habituated to receiving help, sympathy, and compassionate support;
Your choosing to do just the opposite of what you need to do to be happy, healthy, and successful.
Reinforcing your chronic negativity, chronic pessimism, and chronic lack of achievement since you cannot, visualize yourself in a contented, successful life.
Denouncing your achievements and accomplishments; seeking ways in which you can denigrate yourself enough to lose what you've gained (Messina & Messina 1-2).
Clearly, then, there are some serious issues involved when people experience a fear of success, but there are some useful tools and techniques available to help them overcome such anxieties in the form of positive psychology; these tools and techniques as they apply to both organizational settings and individuals are discussed further below.
Positive Psychology and How It Can Help. In 2000, Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) described the positive psychology movement as being a response to an almost "exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline"; by contrast, positive psychology would seek to investigate "the positive features that make life worth living," including the study of "hope, wisdom, creativity, future-mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance" (5). According to the editors of The Journal of Rehabilitation (2005), the concepts of the positive psychology movement are not certainly new. "Many of the positive psychology tenets have provided the foundation for the growth and development of rehabilitation," they advise. "Research in the area of psychological adjustment to disability and attitudes toward individuals with disabilities are firmly rooted in positive psychology constructs" (4).
In fact, many of the recent studies on positive psychology suggest that these are relatively new approaches to helping people achieve better outcomes in their lives, but in the spirit of "We all stand of the shoulders of the giants who come before us," Walsh (2003) suggests that the basis for the positive psychological movement is not, in reality, all that new at all:
In fact, though today's positive psychologists often act as though they are christening a spanking new ocean liner, we notice that this boat has left the dock once or twice per decade for…[continue]
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