In our culture we tend to glamorize success, especially when it’s hard-earned or beats the odds: individuals who succeed despite great obstacles; people who profit from courageous business ventures; those who rise to fame because they persevere; and others whose talents are unusual. We also celebrate and successes relative to the achievements of others, such as maintaining a profitable business when competitors are failing, keeping your job when your colleagues are laid off, or having a pleasurable and secure connection with someone when friends are lonely and unattached. Success is pleasurable, but does it have a price? 

Success can be calculated in a variety of ways, and achieving one’s ideals is a primary way in which it can be measured. A motivating force in one’s life is striving for a sense of worthiness in an effort to match the image of one’s ideals, and to avoid the failures and shortcomings that become the internal criteria for guilt or shame.[1]  Approaching one’s ideals can bolster a sense of being wanted, needed, and important. It can also mask feelings of vulnerability. Guilt or shame can hide beneath success, consciously becoming a sense of fraudulence or an anxiety about not truly being worthy. When you strive to succeed you idealize where you want to be, imagining that the people who reside in those coveted positions are happy and fulfilled. But once you get there you might recognize that the same human vulnerabilities you sought to disown with a new identity still exist.

Some people who achieve success become miserable, self-destructive, or self-defeating. They might experience anxiety or depression, overindulge in alcohol or substances, or engage in behaviors that risk their relationships or their own lives. If humans strive to achieve their ideals, then it’s curious why one would have such experiences once an ideal is achieved. We witness this repeatedly in the case of celebrities and public figures who are subjected to humiliation,both self-imposed as well as a result of attacks from others. Along with success comes notoriety, where others look in at the successful person and may have a desire to see their collapse. The media revels in the vulnerabilities and self-destructive behavior of those who are famous.

The downside of success has been a subject of speculation for at least a century. In 1925, Freud wrote about “Those Wrecked by Success.”[2] In this paper he stated that, “people occasionally fall ill precisely when a deeply-rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment. It seems then as though they were not able to tolerate their happiness; for there can be no question that there is a causal connection between their success and their falling ill.” He concluded that the “forces of conscience”—a sense of guilt—induce illness in consequence of success. In a later essay, Freud compared such occurrences to the experience of guilt when one achieves something perceived as “too good to be true.”[3] This was based on his personal experience of visiting the Acropolis at Athens, a place that he had never expected to see in his lifetime, which he perceived as an accomplishment far beyond what had been achieved by his parents.

Whether or not you appreciate Freud as a great thinker, or can forgive his misconceptions given the limitations of the socio-cultural context in which his theories emerged, he was on to something of value in considering why people destroy what they have been driven to achieve or accomplish. The more contemporary notion of “survivor guilt” refers to the belief that fate has treated you better than others in your life, or that your favorable treatment was at someone else’s expense. In moving beyond what was deemed possible, or in attaining one’s ideals, our loyalty to parents, siblings, or peers can interfere with embracing accomplishment and even result in depression or anxiety.[4] Thus, a strong conscience may lead you to have empathy for those you have surpassed when you are successful or in becomming disconnected from the childhood that you have risen above.

Today, when humans are so much more visible to everyone else in the world, there may be other factors that play a role in the downside of success; namely, the pressure of continued expectation and the possibility of shame. Once you are at the top you have to deal with the expectations of others and their potential disappointment. The stressors are not about guilt but instead about shame and saving face: the responsibility of keeping people thinking highly of you and living up to their expectations.

Arrogance and invincibility can come along with positions of power and success, which may be condoned by a culture in need of heroes. In our present culture we know so much about our heroes—how much money they make, their personal lives, and where they go wrong. Our fantasies can give way to an unappealing reality. Admirers may perceive entitlements that a successful person receives as shameful and undeserved. And, at any level, success may also be accompanied by temptations. Success itself doesn’t necessarily draw a person to self-destruct. It simply affords a person the possibilities that can lead them to do so. Being extremely successful might be the apogee of what one can do—you can only go down from there.

The majority of people who achieve great success can likely manage these challenges and expectations, and they are able to cope with the opportunities that success affords them, rather than defeat themselves. The weight of success today may not result in guilt, as Freud found in his era, but more in the potential to experience anxiety and shame. Indeed, present-day success carries with it the opportunity to make stupid mistakes and unwise decisions, and the possibility that everyone can see you in your underwear on a social media site.  

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[1]Morrison, Andrew P. (1986). “Shame, ideal self, and narcissism,.” In Essential Papers on Narcissism. Andrew Morrison, Ed. New York and London: New York University Press.

[2]Freud, S. (1916). Those wrecked by success. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 14, 316-331

[3]Freud, S. (1936). A disturbance of  memory on the Acropolis: An open letter to Romain Rolland on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 22:239-48.

[4]Weiss, J. (1993). HowPsychotherapy Works. New York: Gilford.