That’s Men: Fear of success can be self-sabotaging


I am more scared of success than of failure. You can hide behind failure. Unless the failure is catastrophic it may not change very much about your life. If it is catastrophic that’s a different story.

But success leaves you exposed. You yourself may take your success as the endpoint of various risks and efforts, a point at which you can now rest. Other people, though, are more likely to take your success as a jumping off point. They assume you can go much, much further. So success is scary and it probably scares more people than you imagine.

I was taken, therefore, by the results of an experiment at the University of Michigan which divided its participants into those with a high and low need for power. The participants then played a game which was rigged by the experimenters so that they could allocate people as winners or losers regardless of whether they had really won or lost.

The experimenters found that those with a high need for power became stressed (as measured by cortisol levels in their systems) when told they had lost and that their stress levels fell when they were told they had won.

What I found most interesting, though, was that the people with a low need for power actually experienced an increase in stress levels when told they had won. In other words, success stressed them out.

In a fascinating article in The Psychologist , Prof Ian Robertson of Trinity College Dublin concludes that “people who have a low need for power may, probably unconsciously, sabotage their own performance because of the anticipated stress of winning”.

This certainly ties in with my own fear of success, a fear, I might add, that I fight against.

Those who like power and success, though, need to watch out. A series of successes can boost testosterone levels to a point that makes them reckless – as we saw with our boom and crash.

High and low power needs seem to be determined by genetics, by the environment in which one is raised or by a combination of both.

Power is one of Prof Roberston’s interests and he is the author of a book called The Winner Effect . His blog, at , looks at contemporary events such as the carry-on of the North Korean dictator, through the lens of neuroscience. It's fascinating – go take a look.

Addendum: two female readers have chastised me from my failure to realise, in a recent column, that the word “shifting” refers to French kissing and not to anything further than that by way of sexual activity. I defer to their knowledge of this social phenomenon. One was kind enough to blame not me but the editorial hierarchy in The Irish Times for failing to notice my mistake. In their defence, I must point out that persons occupying editorial positions in The Irish Times tend to be serious types who have never been “shifted” and who cannot be expected to be familiar with the finer points of this sort of thing.

During my school days the line was that you could go to hell forever for just getting pleasure out of thinking about sexual activity so French kissing could be quite a big deal, eternity wise.

In my column I opposed the Romeo and Juliet law in which teenage boys under 17 who have sex by free and mutual agreement with teenage girls under 17 can be convicted of an offence, while the girls cannot (there is more to the law than that but this is the part I object to).

My argument was that neither should be hauled up in front of the courts for this activity. One of my readers argued that making boys liable to prosecution could bring home to them the fact that the actions can have consequences.

In my opinion, this is a cruel and disproportionate way to teach lessons to boys, or to girls for that matter.

Pádraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.
com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas. His mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.