Fear of Success

by Susanne Babbel, Ph.D., MFT


“Why are some people afraid to succeed but not to fail? Why are some more afraid of failure? How can one learn to embrace these two fears? What is the difference between them?”

A young Canadian woman wrote to me recently with these inquiries. I thought they were excellent questions, and decided to share my thoughts and findings here.

We are all so complex, and the way we react to situations and anticipate results is based on many physiological and psychological factors. So many, in fact, that it can be difficult to generalize why different personality types might handle success versus failure in such drastically polarized ways.

As a psychologist specializing in trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) I’ve had firsthand experience coaching clients whose past experience feeds their current fear of success. For them, the excitement of success feels uncomfortably close to the feeling of arousal they experienced when subjected to a traumatic event or multiple events. (This feeling of arousal can be linked to sexuality, in certain cases where trauma has been experienced in that realm, but that is not always the case.) People who have experienced trauma may associate the excitement of success with the same physiological reactions as trauma. They avoid subjecting themselves to excitement-inducing circumstances, which causes them to be almost phobic about success.

There is another layer to the fear of success. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that the road to success involves risks such as “getting one’s hopes up” – which threatens to lead to disappointment. And many of us-especially if we’ve been subject to verbal abuse-have been told we were losers our whole lives, in one way or another. We have internalized that feedback and feel that we don’t deserve success. Even those of us who were not abused or otherwise traumatized often associate success with uncomfortable things such as competition and its evil twin, envy.

In order to have a healthy relationship with success (and it’s flip side, failure, or disappointment), the first step is to learn to differentiate between feelings of excitement and a “trauma reaction.”

Here is an easy exercise:

  1. Recall an event where you were successful or excited when you were younger, and notice what you are feeling and sensing in your memory. Stay with the sensation of for 5 minutes. 
  2. Recall an event where you were successful and excited recently in your life, and notice what you are feeling and sensing. Stay with this sensation of for 5 minutes.
  3. Now tap into the sensation of a memory of an overwhelming situation. I suggest not to start with a truly traumatic event, at least not without a therapist’s support. Start with something only moderately disturbing to you. 
  4. Now, go back to visualizing your success story. Do you notice a difference?

While corresponding with the young Canadian woman, I asked her to do look up bodily response to fear and excitement and let me know what she found. This is what she wrote back:

“I was looking up how the body responds to fear, and it said that when we sense fear the brain transmits signals and our nervous system kicks, in causing our breathing to quicken, our heart race to increase… we become sweaty, and we run on instinct. When we get excited or enthusiastic, doesn’t our nervous system work the same way?”

I assured her that, yes, the physical reactions to stress and to excitement are very similar. So, when we experience a traumatic event—such as a car accident or a school bullying incident—our body associates the fear we experience with the same physiological feelings we get while excited. Once we have been through enough trauma, we start to avoid those types of situations that trigger memories of fear. For this reason, trauma victims can tend to avoid excitement, and that can lead them to avoid success.

I work with trauma victims to get past their fears and associations and help them embrace and follow the path to success and healthy recovery.

Depression Thwarts Attempts to Quit Smoking

By RICK NAUERT PHD Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on January 3, 2011


New research suggests diagnosed or undiagnosed depression can hinder an individual’s efforts to stop smoking.

In the study, published in the January 2011 edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. scientists determined approximately 24 percent of surveyed callers to the California Smokers’ Helpline currently suffered from major depression and 17 percent of callers had mild depression.

Over half the surveyed callers, depressed or not, made at least one attempt to quit after calling the helpline.

At the two-month mark, however, the success rate of those with major depression was much lower than that of mildly depressed or non-depressed callers. Nearly one in five callers with major depression reported success, but of others, nearly one in three was able to remain smoke-free.

Most quit-lines do not assess smokers for depression, even though mild depression already is known to reduce the success of quitting. This study suggests that major depression reduces the success rate even farther.

That is important because the California quit-line receives a high number of calls from heavy smokers and smokers on Medicaid – two circumstances associated with depression. Since more than 400,000 smokers call U.S. quit-lines every year, the authors believe that up to 100,000 depressed smokers nationally are not getting the targeted treatment they need.

“Assessing for depression can predict if a smoker will quit successfully, but the assessment would be more valuable if it were linked to services,” said lead study author Kiandra Hebert, Ph.D., of the University of California at San Diego.

Hebert said an integrated health care model is a potential solution. Depressed smokers could have better quitting success if they receive services that address both issues. Quit-lines, which are extremely popular, are in a good position to offer such services to a large number of depressed smokers and to pass on the services they develop to quit-lines across the country.

Treatment programs, including quit-lines, report that a growing number of callers have other disorders, such as depression, said Wendy Bjornson, co-director of the Oregon Health & Science University Smoking Cessation Center, who was not involved in the study.

“The results of this study are important. They show the scope of the problem and point to the need for protocols that can lead to better outcomes.”

Source: Health Behavior News Service

Risk for Alcoholism Linked to Risk for Obesity

ScienceDaily


The researchers noted that the association between a family history of alcoholism and obesity risk has become more pronounced in recent years. Both men and women with such a family history were more likely to be obese in 2002 than members of that same high-risk group had been in 1992.

“In addiction research, we often look at what we call cross-heritability, which addresses the question of whether the predisposition to one condition also might contribute to other conditions,” says first author Richard A. Grucza, PhD. “For example, alcoholism and drug abuse are cross-heritable. This new study demonstrates a cross-heritability between alcoholism and obesity, but it also says — and this is very important — that some of the risks must be a function of the environment. The environment is what changed between the 1990s and the 2000s. It wasn’t people’s genes.”

Obesity in the United States has doubled in recent decades from 15 percent of the population in the late 1970s to 33 percent in 2004. Obese people — those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more — have an elevated risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

Reporting in the Archives of General Psychiatry, Grucza and his team say individuals with a family history of alcoholism, particularly women, have an elevated obesity risk. In addition, that risk seems to be growing. He speculates that may result from changes in the food we eat and the availability of more foods that interact with the same brain areas as addictive drugs.

“Much of what we eat nowadays contains more calories than the food we ate in the 1970s and 1980s, but it also contains the sorts of calories — particularly a combination of sugar, salt and fat — that appeal to what are commonly called the reward centers in the brain,” says Grucza, an assistant professor of psychiatry. “Alcohol and drugs affect those same parts of the brain, and our thinking was that because the same brain structures are being stimulated, overconsumption of those foods might be greater in people with a predisposition to addiction.”

Grucza hypothesized that as Americans consumed more high-calorie, hyper-palatable foods, those with a genetic risk for addiction would face an elevated risk from because of the effects of those foods on the reward centers in the brain. His team analyzed data from two large alcoholism surveys from the last two decades.

The National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey was conducted in 1991 and 1992. The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions was conducted in 2001 and 2002. Almost 80,000 people took part in the two surveys.

“We looked particularly at family history of alcoholism as a marker of risk,” Grucza explains. “And we found that in 2001 and 2002, women with that history were 49 percent more likely to be obese than those without a family history of alcoholism. We also noticed a relationship in men, but it was not as striking in men as in women.”

Grucza says a possible explanation for obesity in those with a family history of alcoholism is that some individuals may substitute one addiction for another. After seeing a close relative deal with alcohol problems, a person may shy away from drinking, but high-calorie, hyper-palatable foods also can stimulate the reward centers in their brains and give them effects similar to what they might experience from alcohol.

“Ironically, people with alcoholism tend not to be obese,” Grucza says. “They tend to be malnourished, or at least under-nourished because many replace their food intake with alcohol. One might think that the excess calories associated with alcohol consumption could, in theory, contribute to obesity, but that’s not what we saw in these individuals.”

Grucza says other variables, from smoking, to alcohol intake, to demographic factors like age and education levels don’t seem to explain the association between alcoholism risk and obesity.

“It really does appear to be a change in the environment,” he says. “I would speculate, although I can’t really prove this, that a change in the food environment brought this association about. There is a whole slew of literature out there suggesting these hyper-palatable foods appeal to people with addictive tendencies, and I would guess that’s what we’re seeing in our study.”

The results, he says, suggest there should be more cross-talk between alcohol and addiction researchers and those who study obesity. He says there may be some people for whom treating one of those disorders also might aid the other.

This work was supported by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health.

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Washington University School of Medicine.

More underage drinkers end up in ER on New Year’s

By Michelle Healy, USA TODAY


Alcohol-related New Year’s celebrations send an alarmingly high number of young people to hospital emergency rooms, says a report out today.

In 2009, 1,980 hospital emergency department visits involved underage drinking, according to the report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That’s nearly four times the daily average number of emergency department visits for drinking-related visits by people under 21, the report says. It’s two to three times the number of visits recorded on other “party” holidays, namely Fourth of July weekend (942) and Memorial Day weekend (676)

The study looked at all alcohol-related ER visits, but it did not specify whether they involved traffic accidents, alcohol poisoning or other issues.

The huge rise of drinking-related incidents on New Year’s “should startle us. It should wake us up,” says Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, which did the analysis.

Though any underage alcohol consumption is cause for concern, drinking can also increase the likelihood of other risky behaviors, Delany says.

The findings are in line with other research showing more alcohol-related problems over the winter holidays, SAMHSA says.

Two to three times more people die in alcohol-related vehicle crashes during that time than during comparable periods the rest of the year, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says. And 40% of traffic fatalities during winter holidays involved an alcohol-impaired driver, compared with 28% for other dates in December.

Fueling the underage drinking problem, especially at this time of the year, is “a combination of greater access to alcohol, less parental oversight and mixed messages” about celebrating with alcohol, Delany says.

Young people are told “don’t drink, don’t do that, but in every third commercial in recent weeks, we see something linked to alcohol and drinking,” he says.

And there’s also the issue of “what kind of message parents may give,” Delany adds. “Maybe they’re drinking a lot. Kids see that it’s OK.”

What is needed is a long-term message “that underage drinking is not OK,” he says. “But adolescents don’t do well with ‘Just say no.’ We have to find ways to help young people make good decisions.”

Procrastination and the Perfectionism Myth

by Dr. Piers Steel


Do you have high standards? Do you expect a lot from yourself, day-in and day-out? Do you love it when life is organized and orderly? Do you try to do your best at everything you do? There is a word for people like you: perfectionists. You worry over life’s details, anxious to make every event just so. And you might like to know that some believe that your perfectionism is the root cause of procrastination.

But does perfectionism really cause procrastination? Lots of people think so. It’s a neat theory you’ll often hear repeated around the water cooler. There’s just one problem with it: it’s wrong. Research shows that perfectionists actually procrastinate less than other people, not more.

According to the myth, procrastination is caused by anxiety in one of its myriad forms. Sigmund Freud, for example, thought it was due to death anxiety-we delay because we live in fear of life’s ultimate deadline. In particular, the anxiety produced by perfectionists supposedly induces procrastination. We delay because of our fear of failure, anxious about living up to sky-high standards. Shame on your aspirations to do better!

So how did anxiety and procrastination get all mixed up together? There is a relationship, just not the one you hear about. Most people are indeed apprehensive as the deadline looms, especially if they haven’t left themselves enough time. People can almost become paralyzed over the work they left themselves for tomorrow, knowing that they should act but remaining immobile with anxiety. But this is an expression of having procrastinated, not a cause of procrastination. For anxiety to cause procrastination the two have to be connected, that is, anxiety-prone people have to put things off more than others. But according to analysis of about a hundred studies involving tens of thousands of participants, anxiety produces a negligible amount of procrastination at best-and even that tiny amount disappears completely after you take into account other personality characteristics, especially impulsiveness.

As best as we can figure, task anxiety will just as likely get you to start early as to start late. That is, worrying about a deadline will make you procrastinate more if you are impulsive, the sort of person to whom avoiding a dreaded task or blocking it from your awareness makes perfect sense from a short-term perspective. If you aren’t impulsive, anxiety is a cue that you should get cracking-and, as a result, you actually start earlier. The real culprit is impulsiveness, not anxiety. (But you can’t be expected to discern this effect through personal reflection; relying only on your own experiences, you will never know that anxiety decreases procrastination for many others.)

The myth that perfectionism creates procrastination makes even less sense. What traits do you associate with procrastination? A) Being messy and disorganized or B) Being neat and orderly? If you choose option A, good for you; you are right. Perfectionists best fit description B, being neat and orderly, and unsurprisingly, they don’t tend to procrastinate. The research-from Robert Slaney, who developed the Almost Perfect Scale to measure perfectionism, to my own meta-analytical research article, The Nature of Procrastination– shows this clearly.

For example, there is a recent article by Dr. Caplan from Anadolu University entitled: “Relationship among Perfectionism, Academic Procrastination and Life Satisfaction of University Students.” Dr. Caplan takes a fine-grained approach to studying perfectionism, breaking perfectionists down into three strains: other-oriented, socially prescribed, and self-oriented. Only the last of these, self-oriented perfectionism, includes the features we typically associate with perfectionism, i.e., having high personal standards and being rather critical if you don’t meet them.

Dr. Caplan reconfirmed what has been found many times before, that “Other-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism traits did not predict academic procrastination” and “self-oriented perfectionism and academic procrastination are negatively correlated,” that is, an increase in one is associated with a reduction in the other. In short, perfectionists tend to procrastinate the same or less than other people, not more. Of course, there are still some people who are both procrastinators and perfectionists, but not as many as there are procrastinators who are non-perfectionists (or perhaps, imperfectionists?). Odds are, you don’t even believe that perfectionism causes dilly-dallying yourself. Across several surveys, only 7 percent of procrastinators blamed their sloppy habits on perfectionism.

So how did this myth come about? Why did we ever think the two traits were connected? The December 24th issue of the Globe & Mail provides a relevant excerpt from my book, The Procrastination Equation. Here’s a summary.

The confusion comes from an unexpected source. As noted above, procrastinators themselves do not blame their delaying on perfectionism; instead, this misinformation comes from clinicians and counselors. Perfectionists who procrastinate are more likely to seek help from such professionals, creating a self-selection phenomenon that gives the illusion that the two traits are linked. Clinicians tend to see a lot of perfectionist procrastinators because non-perfectionist procrastinators (and, for that matter, non-procrastinating perfectionists) are less likely to seek professional help. You see, perfectionists are more motivated to do something about their dilly-dallying because, by their very nature, they are more likely to feel worse about putting things off. Consequently, it is not perfectionism per se that is the problem but the discrepancy between high standards and less-than-stellar performance.

Since diagnosis typically precedes treatment, understanding the real reasons behind procrastination is critical to stopping it. If we feel certain that perfectionism causes procrastination, then our cures will confidently head off in the wrong direction. This isn’t to say perfectionism and fear of failure aren’t important in their own right-each has the potential to become crippling. It is just that they aren’t important here, with regards to procrastination. But we do know what is.

The research shows that there are three major, empirically confirmed, causes of procrastination: expectancy, value and impulsiveness. I will tackle each one individually in the upcoming weeks. During the meanwhile, I want to hear from the perfectionists out there and how much you procrastinate. You can take this short quiz on Facebook to measure your level of procrastination. Are you a garden variety dilly-dallier or do you have “tomorrow” tattooed across your back? I’m interested to know which group is the most vocal-the perfectionists who procrastinate or the ones that don’t procrastinate much at all.