You blew it.
Just when you were on the verge of achieving all you'd ever wanted -- the job, the fellowship, the lover -- you somehow sabotaged your own success.
Psychiatrists say it happens all the time. Many men and women unconsciously fear success -- or at least have mixed feelings about it. So much so, in fact, that when they near a long-sought goal, they may get anxious to the point of panic, procrastinate, have trouble making decisions, become depressed and developed psychosomatic ills.
"Accumulated studies give strong indication that fear of success is a phenomenon which is prevalent in a wide variety of people," social psychologist Katherine Garner said at a recent meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis in Atlanta. It seems to affect men and women equally, she said.
"It can be identified in children of elementary school age as well as adolescents and adults . . . It has serious consequences for both the feelings and performances of those who fear success in their contemporary lives," the New York University psychologist said.
The problem is of such apparent magnitude as to be the subject of numerous scientific articles, a new book ("The Success-Fearing Personality") and a three-hour discussion at a psychoanalytic meeting in May.
The whys of this success phobia -- first observed by Freud in 1915 -- are tangled in certain events of very early childhood, the experts say -- perhaps in the first three years of life, certainly within the first five.
If parents react negatively to the young child's first stumbling steps toward independence, one line of reasoning goes, the child may grow into an adult who feels anxious every time mastery and independence are at hand.
Or, later, if the parents turn every conflict into a situation in which one person clearly wins and the other loses, the child may come to equate personal victory with defeating his parents, and thus feel guilty about expressing his own desires and moving toward his own goals.
Either way, the child gets the message early on that performing poorly is bad, that performing well is very desirable, but that performing well is also bad and/or dangerous to his or her welfare, Garner said. As adults, being a "winner" instead of a "loser" takes on exaggerated importance -- until the person gets close to his goal and becomes anxious and threatened by impending success.
"If, however, the success-fearing person sabotages a success," Garner explained, "both his or her anxiety about success and the strength of the motive to avoid it are reduced, and the person's motive to succeed is reinstigated . . . and he will work with even greater vigor." Normal persons on the other hand are more likely to work especially hard in the presence of success and become discouraged when faced with apparent failure.
Garner and colleagues at Columbia University, the University of Massachusetts and Boston College conducted a series of experiments that support this theory. Groups of college students and fourth, fifth and sixth graders who had been scored earlier on a fear-of-success scale were given reading comprehension tests and told either that they had performed well or average. The success-fearers improved after being told that their work was only average, but did worse if told they had done well! The other students improved regardless of their initial rating.
Other experiments involving series of reading tests, poetry recitations and memory competition all came up with the same findings, Garner said: "When success-fearers are relatively distant from success, they are able to work diligently to achieve it, but when it is near at hand, their performances are undermined."
Something of how this tendency to pull back from success comes about emerged from another study. Elementary school boys and girls wo scored high and low on a children's fear-of-success scale here were asked to take part in an experiment in which they tried to accumulate points by making short words out of longer ones.
The accompanying parent could say or do anything, short of actually constructing the words for the child.
The researchers noted what the parents of success-fearers (who were themselves often success-fearers) said and did more than other parents: They made more critical, scolding or correcting comments, gave more hints, commands and instructions, and sometimes even tried to take over the child's task.
"These behaviors," Garner explained, "may communicate to the child a series of subtle messages which indicate to him that doing well on the task is very important and that making mistakes and doing poorly is something to be avoided. The parent's active participation in the task may be interpreted as interference and may signal to the child that the parent believes his or her contributions are more valuable than the child's or that the parent does not really want the child to act independently to succeed at the task."
Garner said these messages "undoubtedly are [WORD ILLEGIBLE] communicated to the child and lay the foundation for the child's own ambivalence about success."
This process actually begins in the first year of life when the infant begins its transition into a separate, autonomous human being. A critical period begins at about 16 months, according to New York University psychoanalyst Esther Greenbaum, another panel member in Atlanta.
This is the time when the child begins to perceive its separateness from the mother, fears the loss of her or her love, becomes infantile and clinging again and may throw frequent temper tantrums. Ideally, the mother will react with reassurance and affection, but sometimes, Greenbaum said, either she won't allow the child space to separate or she'll accept the separation and resent the child's seeming return to dependency.
The mothers of most success-fearing women with whom another panel member has worked during the past decade fall into two main categories, she said --the cold and critical mom who pushes the child away too soon and the smothering mother who lavishes love and demands total loyalty and allegiance in return.
In neither case, said Dr. Doreen E. Schecter, a psychoanalyst at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, does that child develop real autonomy.