The Ladder of Success May Lead Only to a High Place to Fall from

updated 12/08/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/08/1986 01:00AM

He is 33 years old and vice-president of a manufacturing company. He has a $150,000 salary, two Mercedeses and an expensive house in the suburbs. He also uses cocaine, cheats on his wife and misses business meetings that he calls himself. He is, says Dr. Steven Berglas, a victim of success, one of a growing number of upwardly mobile young men and women for whom the achievements that should crown a career bring unexpected disappointment. Berglas, 36, a clinical psychologist at the Harvard Medical School, runs the Executive Stress Clinic in Boston, a treatment center for people who "hit bottom when they reach the top." Author of The Success Syndrome (Plenum, $18.95), Berglas discussed success and its complications with Reporter Tom Cunneff.

What is the success syndrome?

It is a condition that develops when the rewards of success—wealth, fame, prestige, power—expose an individual to expectations and psychological stress that make him vulnerable to depression, drug abuse, self-inflicted failure and even suicide. The cruel paradox of this syndrome is that at the very moment a successful person should be enjoying the fruits of his labor, he becomes susceptible to distress he would not have been exposed to if he were not successful.

Why are some people unable to enjoy their success?

Often they lack self-esteem. Some people are not confident that they can live up to the expectations that come with success. There's a natural human tendency to expect more and better performances from people who succeed, and since humans are limited in their capacity to achieve, this results in stress.

Who is vulnerable to these feelings?

A lot of yuppies are hitting bottom when they reach the top because of their myopic focus on material rewards. If they don't understand that relationships count more than the balance in their checkbooks, they are in trouble. When people focus on the outcome as opposed to the process of achieving success, one's day-to-day activities tend to lose meaning. If a person's job is not in and of itself rewarding, the bulk of his career will feel like drudgery. Executives, athletes and entertainers at the top of their professions are potential victims of this. The student voted most likely to succeed in his high school class may also be susceptible. People suffering from this condition can be found at all levels of society, in every walk of life, in all age groups and among both sexes. The common denominator among these people is that the recognition and rewards they receive frequently result in strained personal relationships and anxiety in meeting the expectations of others.

What are the symptoms of the success syndrome?

Depression can come when the thrill of the pursuit of success is gone. Successful people are expected to perform at ever-increasing levels of proficiency; if they fail to live up to these expectations they may use alcohol to protect their self-esteem. On the other hand, when success comes easily, some people get bored and try drugs like cocaine to create new thrills. They begin to think drugs are the only way to get real excitement out of life.

Does great success also contribute to a sense of isolation from people who haven't made it big?

Frequently. When you are successful, people envy you and make demands on you. What's most devastating is that it may become impossible to trust the feelings of another person who is not at the same professional level or higher. When you hold power, it's hard to believe that their reactions to you are not colored by their attempts to ingratiate themselves.

Is it neurotic to strive for success?

Absolutely not. It is never unhealthy to strive for success when it is pursued to enhance one's sense of being a competent, intelligent, talented person. When success leaves you with a sense of self-fulfillment, it is not neurotic. The material rewards that go with success typically improve people's lives by freeing them from financial hassles, enabling them to expand the breadth and depth of their experiences. But when the drive for success is nothing more than a striving for money or for domination over other people or to compensate for feelings of inferiority, then it is neurotic.

Does success affect women differently than men?

The pressures on women once they succeed are inordinately greater than they are on men. Women feel a responsibility to represent their gender. When Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for Vice-President, she felt that she bore the burden of all women and that if she failed she would be letting them down. Men don't feel the same way about their gender.

How would you advise a woman who wants to be successful in her career and as a mother?

If a woman or a man gives up a family in pursuit of professional success, she or he is a likely candidate for psychotherapy. You can't enjoy success without balancing it with a close, caring relationship. If a person wants both, I would suggest climbing one rung lower on the corporate ladder until he or she can have a family. The typical professional woman has been imbued with the belief that if she forfeits a career for family, then she is weak or deficient. I view it as an act of strength.

Are the children of successful people predisposed to the success syndrome?

The shadows cast by successful parents are often far too long to permit their offspring to develop identities of their own. Many, but not all children are victimized by the pressures of having to live up to the family name. The microscope that children with famous names such as Kennedy or Rockefeller live under is highly stressful. They are often unable to determine whether people like them for their personal attributes or for their inherited place in society, and they may be afraid to seem "average" among their peers for fear that they will look like failures, considering the head start their family name has given them.

What kind of achiever is able to resist falling victim to the success syndrome?

The person who is not vulnerable to the syndrome knows that he has earned success based on his ability. He views the added responsibilities that come with success as challenges, not something he is afraid to face. A person who wants to succeed and who doesn't focus on the status or the accolades or the glamour will not succumb to the success syndrome.

How can parents enhance their children's chances of achieving real self-fulfillment as adults?

Parents should never allow a child to confuse their love for him with the praise he receives for success. A child should receive unconditional love for being a person as well as rewards contingent on achieving a goal. In order to be truly successful, the child must learn that love is independent of achievement.

Why is succeeding financially a national obsession?

For two reasons. Number one, there is no nobility in this society; people can achieve class and power through the acquisition of wealth. Second, the "me generation," having suffered a severe economic recession, is finding security in material rewards. In essence, many members of the "me generation" have become the "my generation"—my Mercedes, my broker, etc.—in an attempt to bolster their sense of self-esteem. The fact that one of the hottest items selling on the streets of New York is the fake Rolex watch shows how perverted we have become. Being an achieving society is very healthy, but being an acquisitive society is sick.

Is this affliction curable?

Absolutely. The hardest thing for someone suffering from this syndrome is to acknowledge his obsession with success and what it can buy, and then let it go. If you fear that you are sacrificing friends and family for your career, you are en route to a serious disorder. Correct it by guaranteeing quality time with people you love. If you are a top executive, make sure there is a place in your life where you are a team player, a rookie or a neophyte. Ask yourself whether you are going to work just to earn a living or to satisfy yourself. The pursuit of rewards should not be your primary goal. There is a human need to achieve, to demonstrate competence, to prove one's worth—and there is also a need to relate to people, to receive and to give love. The genuinely successful person has developed the capacity to achieve a balance.

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