Why do smart people do dumb things?

February 27, 2011: 10:06 AM ET

Who had it better than Charlie Sheen, before he threw a public tantrum that cost him (and others) tens of millions? Of course, he's not the first, or the last. A few thoughts on self-sabotage.

Charlie Sheen

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

By Anne Fisher, contributor

By now, anyone who watches the news is all too familiar with an oddly long list of people who have thrown away their lucrative careers. Athletes, governors, senators, judges, CEOs… we all know who they are, right? These are smart, accomplished people. They worked hard to reach these heights. And once they got there, and had it made in the shade if they just kept at it, BAM. Game over.

Why?

Sigmund Freud took an incisive look at this in 1915, in an essay called "Those Wrecked by Success." He described a "surprising and even bewildering" tendency of some people to go to pieces "precisely when a deeply rooted and long cherished wish has come to fulfillment" -- let's say, being the highest paid actor on television, just as a for-instance; or being the governor of New York; or being the CEO of… -- "as though they were not able to tolerate happiness."

An enormous body of academic and clinical research has since been devoted to success as a double-edged sword: Most of us want it, or at least think we do, until we actually get it, or think we might. And then look out.

The human mind, it seems, has a little design flaw: The unconscious doesn't come with a filter. Whatever happened many years ago is still happening. Got self-esteem issues (and who doesn't)? The bigger and more conspicuous your success, the more likely it is to drag those demons right up to the surface, where they can do the most damage. Plenty of people who sabotage their own careers do so because they just don't believe they're worthy of the heights they have attained -- and, unconsciously, they won't rest until they fall.

Then, there's the inner brat. "Everyone's personality has several parts. The ones we usually show the world are calm, rational, and in control," says David Kaiser, CEO of Dark Matter Consulting . "Then there are the parts we keep in a cage."

Kaiser specializes in shining an analytic light on what's in that cage. "Many, many successful people are a troubled 6-year-old in a 50-year-old body," he says. "They are putting a huge amount of effort into squashing their own self-doubt and hiding their flaws, and the more effort goes into that, the worse it is when it finally busts out.

"If you want a metaphor, think about this: The attention-starved 6-year-old on the bus is now driving the bus. The inner 6-year-old is finally in charge, and finally getting some attention."

Yikes. And after the inevitable crash?

"One's enemies and detractors -- and powerful people always have them, of course -- are gleeful," says Kaiser. "And that's hard. But anyone in this situation always has lots of allies and supporters and friends. Focus on them, and accept that screwing up is human."

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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