fear of success

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.


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. More

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