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"A common example of such a family occurs when one or both parents have failed, or feel they have failed, in some crucial area of life. If a child of such a parent begins to succeed or excel in this same area of life, it can be a source of pain for the parent, as if salt were being rubbed into an old wound. In such circumstances, the child’s success can be experienced by the parent as insensitive or cruel. The parent’s reaction to the child’s success may be quite subtle and unconscious, without any awareness on the part of the parent or the child that the parent is reacting to the child’s success.

One form this can take is the perfectionistic parent, whose constant criticisms do not allow the child to ever feel successful. Another parent may become depressed or withdrawn in response to the child’s success. For example a parent may react to their offspring’s success in school, socializing, sports or hobbies, by becoming self-effacing (“you’re doing so much with your life compared to me”), depressed (well I’m glad you’re happy), or withdrawn, by changing the subject or hardly responding at all to their son’s or daughter’s accomplishment.

Or, a child may become the target of family members' ill will, resentment, or envy when excelling or standing out. Success in school may evoke reactions of ridicule, irritation, or an overall lack of interest from parents or siblings. Enthusiasm about pursuing one’s talents and interests may be seen by the family as showing off. Ambitions to go to college, to pursue a career, or to marry, may be met with criticism or rejection.

When there has been a pattern of such parental responses growing up, the child’s efforts to achieve personal goals are undermined. Instead of receiving love and support for their successes, the child finds that the parent feels hurt, depressed, and responds by criticism, ridicule or withdrawal.

Because it feels as if their success has hurt or damaged their parents, the child may end up as an adult, having unconscious feelings of guilt from wishing, striving for, or accomplishing success in an area or areas where a parent has failed. These areas may include relationships, career, finances, health, pleasure, or an overall sense of one’s self-worth.

The guilt is unconscious, so that the reasons for self-sabotage, e.g., lack of ambition, or over-avoidance of competition, may be hidden. Wishing, striving for, or accomplishing success unconsciously triggers anxiety and guilt, resulting in procrastination, an inability to concentrate, low motivation, or a decision to just drop the project altogether."

Marc Miller, Ph.D.

"The earliest origins of the fear of success can be potentially traced by to our early childhood education experiences. Remember when you wanted to raise your hand to answer a question, but past experiences kept the hand down. You did not want your classmates possibly teasing you or maybe you were not quite positive that you knew the answer. You didn’t want to fail. And if you did know the correct response, you did not want to be viewed as the teacher’s pet, brown-noser or know it all.

From those early experiences, the fear of success was born and began to develop inside of you. Then other happenings added to this fear and spawned feelings of self doubt along with a lot of brain noise. A mental record then began to play songs with titles such as "Remember when this happened the last time?," "Do you really want to be stupid" or "Are you sure you know the answer?""

Leanne Hoagland-Smith

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