Eugene V. Martin wanted to be a big success, an American hero. He had, he says, "all these global, overriding, big-deal things to accomplish."

He went to Africa in the mid-1960s to direct Peace Corps programs in Ethiopia and Ghana. He was in charge of more than 300 professionals and volunteers, telling them how to improve the lives of thousands of Africans.

Martin believed that if he just worked hard enough, sacrificed enough, his Great Reward would come. He believed that at some magical point in time, provided he never took time off to enjoy his accomplishments, there would be money and fame and power and peace of mind. His wife and two boys, he assumed, would forgive him for years of neglect.

It did not happen that way. In 1971, a new director replaced Martin in Ghana, reversed his policies and, Martin says, "two years of my life vanished without a splash." Then he came home to the United States to find his father dying of pancreatic cancer.

The would-be American hero was struck by the inevitability of his own death and the absurdity of his ideas about success.

"I had an unconscious feeling that life was kind of like sex. You built up to a great orgasm at the end. But what you do at the end of life is die," says Martin, 45, an industrial consultant who now lives in Silver Spring. "I'm aware now of how much time I didn't have for my boys because I was too busy accomplishing stuff. That time is irretrievable. What strikes me is that I did not think I had any choices. I thought I had to sacrifice everything to be a success."

Since realizing he had set up impossible standards of achievement for himself, Martin has become something of proselyter, advising people to examine their myths about success.

"People have been programmed to be unsatisfied with themselves," he says. "We are told that if we are satisfied we are lazy."

Worry about success, ranging from vague unease to severe depression, is one of the most common kinds of anxiety in the Washington area and one of the major reasons why people here see psychiatrists and psychologists, says Dr. Harold I. Eist, a psychiatrist and past president of the Washington Psychiatric Society.

Success misery, according to Eist and other mental health experts, afflicts people of all ages and incomes. Young adults, obsessed with status, money and praise, blame themselves for not working hard enough, not being smart enough to get everything they want. Middle-aged adults, who have strained for years to earn money and status, complain of feeling empty and hollow. Mental health experts trace a shopping list of emotional and physical maladies, ranging from marital problems to diarrhea, back to success anxiety.

Washington is a mecca for career fretting. The city, with the nation's highest average household income, best educated residents and highest proportion of working women, is a magnet for ambitious people from across the country who want success and recognition.

Many local psychiatrists say Washington residents, as compared to people in other cities, place a high premium on position and feel they are playing high-stakes career games with no room for failure. The city -- with its huge hierarchical bureaucracy and its preoccupation with power -- often forces ambitious people to assess their success in terms of how far they are ahead or behind their colleagues.

"In this city, things outside inner goals or professional skills pervade judgments of success," says Maury Lieberman, a sociologist at the National Institute of Mental Health's center on work. "In the bureaucracy, people often judge their success simply by how well along they are in the hierarchy."

No one in the bureaucracy, including scientists, scholars and other highly trained professionals, is immune to the "schizophrenia" of success worry, according to Charles Derber, a sociologist at Boston College, who is conducting a federally funded study of 1,000 professionals in big business and government. "Success in big organizations is measured by two different standards: professional skills and management power. A technical expert may feel he's not getting the kind of respect he deserves, and he may never have it if he doesn't get managerial authority. It creates a lot of confusion and self-doubt and feelings of powerlessness."

If all this were not bad enough, there are other good reasons to worry about success in the 1980s. The baby-boom generation is moving into its 30s and 40s during an era of high unemployment when record numbers of business-school graduates are looking for jobs. There are not enough high- paying, high-status jobs to go around. The Wall Street Journal, in a story explaining that promotions in big business are often put on permanent hold long before a manager reaches middle-age, says that personnel officials around the country estimate that at each step up the corporate ladder there are 30 percent fewer jobs than on the rung below.

"Because of the bureaucratic pyramid there is only so much room at the top," says Lieberman at the NIMH center for work. "Somebody has to fail. If you have a strong ego, you may know you are good even without a promotion. But that doesn't seem to be the case these days."

In hard economic times, with more and more well-trained people scrambling after fewer and fewer high-status jobs, there are sound reasons to worry about success. But mental health experts in Washington say there are thousands of outwardly successful people -- with jobs cannot live comfortably with their achievements. Some fear success, others have a nagging feeling that they haven't achieved enough and still others find that their success means nothing to them. Unlike the unemployment rate, success anxiety is almost impossible to quantify. Reasons for it cannot be neatly sorted out.

Fear of success is often explained by psychiatrists as a neurosis based in childhood. "It goes back to the old Oedipal thing," says psychiatrist Eist, "If I out-achieve my father, then I have to take his place with mother and that is taboo."

The nagging fear that one has not achieved enough, which often haunts highly successful people who have abundant objective evidence to the contrary, also has much to do with childhood and parental expectations, psychiatrists say. Parents, by lavishing high expectations rather than unqualified love on the children, can infect their children with success anxiety before they even begin their careers.

"From the moment a person starts treating his life as a career, worry is his constant companion. Careerism can begin at age 5, 15 or later," writes psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby in the Gamesman, a book based on his interviews with 250 business managers at 12 major corporations. "Why do children become careerists? Parents start the ball rolling by evaluating all their children's actions in terms of usefulness to career. Is he smart enough? Is her personality right? Can he sell himself? The parents, themselves careerists, threaten the children not with punishment, but with failure in the career market of school and workplace."

Young adults, so afflicted, often find themselves chasing after career success that pleases their parents more than it satisfies them.

"Richard Green," 37, who has a PhD in education and who for years found himself "going nuts over achieving status and recognition," was such a person.

"The greatest thrill my parents had was the day I walked up to the podium to receive my doctorate. It was that achievement that had the most status in their eyes," says Green, who does not want his real name published for fear of upsetting his parents. "Throughout my childhood, it was: 'You are going to college.' My parents took me to a testing service when I was a teen-ager to prove to me how smart I was. It wasn't that they were malicious. They were doing what they thought was best. But it made me obsessed with getting a lot of status and recognition."

Four years ago Green was a GS13 in the Office of Personnel Management making $35,000 a year and jumping through career hoops in pursuit of promotion and money.

"I really wanted to be included in every important committee. I wanted to be thought of as hot ----," Green says. Because he was chronically dissatisfied with himself, Green went to see a psychologist.

When Green figured out he was pursuing his parents' dreams, not his own, he quit his OPM job and took a $17,000-a-year pay cut to work as a professor of education at a college in Northern Virginia. He now says he likes teaching, and has become adept at explaining to his parents why he doesn't need more money.

While worries about success can never be divorced from childhood experience, many psychiatrists and psychologists believe that the nature of work itself and peer attitudes about achievement are probably more important in explaining why so many so-called successful people say they are miserable.

"I'm not so sure that the people I'm talking to have any idea that it is their job and their ideas about success that are causing them problems," says Linda LaScola, a clinical social worker who counsels employes at the Department of Health and Human Services. "There is something in the Puritan ethic that says once we get a so-called 'good job' we should buckle down and do it, even if it is eating away at you."

Psychoanalyst Maccoby, citing his interviews of corporate managers, argues there is a new breed of "careerists" who have become successful by burying their emotional needs and living by the values of their company.

"Jason Kingston" says he did just that. In the mid-1960s, with $3,000 and two partners, Kingston founded a consulting company in Washington that by 1980 had more than 200 employes and $10 million in annual revenues. Kingston, by working 70- and 80-hour weeks, made himself a millionaire.

"I saw my two kids at night and on Sunday afternoons when I came home from work to watch the Redskins," says Kingston, 44, a graduate of Harvard Business School. He does not want his real name published. "What really counted for me was winning competitive bids. What I liked about consulting was winning contracts. I liked people around me who liked to win. If people weren't measuring up, I didn't have any problems telling them to look elsewhere. I was considered a real SOB.

"I guess most of my emotions came from winning and losing contracts. They didn't come from my family or anything else. Intimacy was something I didn't have with my wife, children or parents."

Kingston sold his company recently and has enough money, he says, never to work again. He says that without a company to run, he doesn't know what to do with his life.

"I am struggling with all these obtuse, cloudy, personal decisions. I'm thinking about leaving my family. I am very unhappy. I would prefer the clean, analytic world of business," says Kingston.

Behind much of the agonizing over success in Washington, says psychiatrist Eist, is a "punishing assumption" that most people don't realize they have made.

"The assumption is that there is perfectability in your career. You assume that everything is in your control," says Eist. "And when your career is not perfect, the only person your assumption allows you to blame is yourself."

Eugene Martin, the former Peace Corps administrator who changed his ideas about success, claims that American culture, especially for men, demands that ambitious people "never accept themselves as an established fact."

"Being a real man means always have to prove something," says Martin, who has worked as a consultant to NIMH's center for work on job stress studies. "We are told we live in a combative universe and you can never do enough to protect yourself and your family."

Martin's claim that successful people frequently demean their own achievement is supported by the work of Harvard researcher Robert Weiss, who is conducting a federally funded study of what successful people think about themselves and their peers.

"It turns out that people will shift their reference group (the peers they admire and, in turn, seek admiration from) to keep themselves going, to keep working harder. Some people constantly shift reference groups to keep themselves insecure," say Weiss, a social psychologist at Harvard Medical School.

Weiss says the best-known example of this chronic self- dissatisfaction is Ernest Hemingway, who once announced that he had become the equal of the Russian novelist Turgenev and was ready to take on Tolstoy. Among ambitious people, Weiss says, the myth of the hard-charging, winner-take-all American that was personified by Hemingway has considerable emotional influence.

In Washington, the influence of that myth, combined with bureaucratized jobs that often emasculate workers even as they provide status and money, can make ambitious people feel they have defrauded themselves in seeking success.

Psychologist Douglas LaBier, who recently interviewed more than 150 people in the Washington area who are troubled by the distance between their dreams about success and their actual jobs, says that an "overwhelming" number of careerists in the city claim to feel "hollow or empty."

One of LaBier's patients, a 40-year-old member of the federal Senior Executive Service who is married and has a family, recently told the psychologist: "You know I came to see you because I feel a lack of energy mentally. And now I have just spent most of the hour telling you how important the work I do is. But you know something? I've been holding back something from you. It is all lies. I really feel like a high- paid prostitute, nothing more. I am frightened there is no way out."

LaBier says most of the people who come to him complaining about their careers are not neurotic -- they do not have deep-seated psychological problems stemming from their childhood. Rather, he says they are victims of their own adeptness at fitting in.

"But if the work itself is boring, then what do you do? You compromise and trade off and get bored," says LaBier.

For many people in Washington, LaBier says, success is betrayal.

The best way to escape this success trap, of course, is to find a meaningful job. But that is often difficult, especially for middle-aged "successes" who've grown accustomed to status and material ease.

For those who cannot or will not find a better job, mental health experts say the best way to relieve success anxiety is to examine assumptions about the perfect career. Psychiatrists say these assumptions, which often are made early in life and never reviewed, can make people miserable even when they are barely aware of what the assumptions are.

To avoid a nagging sense of failure, these anachronistic assumptions must be dredged up, examined in the harsh light of an adult world where perfection is rarely possible and revised.

"I'm not saying people shouldn't be brave or aggressive," says Martin, who re- tooled his ideas about achievement. "But it doesn't make any sense to give up everything, to be without limits in what you will do to be a success."