Many books have been written about how traumatic or painful experiences can harm an individual’s well-being. I have the impression, though, that the other side of the coin is rarely talked about—that is, the harmful impact that a positive experience can have on an individual.
For many people, an initial success becomes the starting point for their consecutive successes. If the first success is looked at rationally, it becomes clear what brought the success, what impeded it, and also that it was the result of certain causes. Knowing that, an individual begins down the road to further achievements. The situation becomes ideal when, besides gaining more knowledge, she also becomes more motivated.
However, reality often works in the reverse fashion: achieved success becomes a curse because it leads to so-called ego-inflation. There is even a folk saying that states if you want to see someone for who he truly is, first you need to see how he will behave after achieving a major success. Another saying claims that wealth spoils people. The popular idiom about “success going to somebody’s head” (a phenomenon especially common among young people with less mature mechanisms of coping with overwhelming emotions) is yet another illustration of this phenomenon.
The term “ego-inflation” is typically used to describe immature interpretations of spiritual experiences, but I believe that it can also be used to describe other powerful experiences of strong positive emotions in financial, academic, professional, relationship, sport, or any other type of success.
When a person feels extremely positive emotions in a completely new situation, quite often the whole experience is understood in a childish and simplistic manner. And that is the way in which he later thinks about it. Even if he consciously thinks of achieved success being the result of hard work (or sometimes a pure coincidence), in reality he acts as if he thinks totally differently. This totally different way of thinking generally comes down to drawing incorrect conclusions about oneself or about reality.
There are many ways of interpreting why ego-inflation happens. Maybe an individual’s brain isn’t capable of coping with such strong emotions or such a significant shift of his model of reality, so he reacts like a child. Maybe the sub-personalities of infancy, which were always present, finally have the opportunity to fully express themselves. (Similarly, an individual may not seem to be a jealous person while he is single, but this doesn’t mean he won’t have such tendencies after getting married). A person can suppress the need to brag, despite having strong tendencies to do so, because of the lack of an appropriate occasion, but when the opportunity appears, then the person’s hidden need reveals itself.
Five types of dysfunctional reactions to success
Of course, different people hide different tendencies within themselves, so I have distinguished five main types of dysfunctional human reactions to success, particularly to success that is sudden and unexpected.
Let me clearly emphasize that even though I have named these types of reactions after certain personality disorders, this DOES NOT MEAN that someone who observes such tendencies in herself has a disorder. A disorder may exist in situations where there is a very strong intensification of those tendencies, which also happens without prior success.
Of course, the intensity of these five types can vary from minor (perhaps only coming through in a joking manner) to a seriously disturbed functionality. They can also blend with each other.
#1 Narcissistic type:
“I am the chosen one”
In this scenario, someone achieves success and as a consequence starts to think that he is extraordinary and that his success was a direct cause of his extraordinariness. This is quickly accompanied by vanity and illusions. Often the individual starts to overrate the value of his success and skill in the field in which this success was achieved. For instance, an individual who works out at the gym may assume that a disproportionately large group of other people are also very enthusiastic about the number of weights lifted. Moreover, as a consequence of surrounding himself only with people who do appreciate his success, the individual may have the impression that everybody else also appreciates it.
Mystical experiences lead some to immediately call themselves spiritual teachers, sometimes even incarnations of Christ or Buddha. Similarly, after an individual has a few favorable interactions with the opposite sex, he might have the impression that he can pick up anybody in the world. Interestingly enough, this may also happen to people who have survived a cataclysm or catastrophe—they start believing themselves to be immortal.
Unsuccessful experiences are either cut from the individual’s self-image or else he carefully navigates his life to avoid them, for instance by always avoiding places and disciplines in which he is not the best.
Sometimes an individual not only puts himself on a pedestal, but also, in an infantile way, considers himself to be above the rules. Once a success is achieved, he quickly forgets what led to it and assumes himself to be invincible. He has the impression that, no matter what he does, success is inevitable, and so drinking, drugs, gambling, or pure laziness do not seem to pose a threat (examples of this can be seen in some celebrities).
Due to the simple fact that in order to sustain success, a certain level of involvement is required, the narcissistic attitude quickly leads to an individual losing the resources gained from his former successes. Lottery winnings shrink to zero, a loved one becomes disappointed with him and dumps him, a neglected business slowly falls apart, and mystical experiences cease to occur when he stops working on himself.
#2 Compulsive type:
“From now on I always have to be successful”
In this case, the attachment to the success is so huge that from now on no other activity can bring fulfillment or satisfaction. A student might experience a breakdown when, after getting a string of As, she gets a B. An occasional drop in earnings caused by the typical fluctuations of the market might lead an individual to despair, even though her income still outweighs her expenses. Breaking up with a partner and the following period of loneliness becomes a nightmare. Less impressive results at the gym, perhaps after a significant break from exercise; lower viewership of one’s show; a less successful, but still good, project—all these things become an embarrassing stain on an individual’s honor, sometimes so burdensome that she prefers to do nothing instead of trying to improve her situation.
Sometimes, even before experiencing the first setback, a huge amount of tension appears as a consequence of expecting constant success from oneself. When an individual’s recent results are worse than previous ones, she is left greatly unsatisfied and, because she feels that the surrounding world always demands the best possible results from her, she demands the same from herself.
If the individual doesn’t break this vicious cycle, then the stress occurring after a success becomes so great that it hampers everyday work on further successes. She often starts to act desperately, which leads her straight to failure. The first success also happens to be the last one.
#3 Antisocial type:
“Now I will show you what I really think about you”
This is a well-known scenario, especially in the case of sudden financial success. Hidden or repressed aversion to others reveals itself, and an individual undergoes a personal transformation. Contrary to his previous, more or less normal behavior (which may have been very polite and friendly), he or now starts to act aggressively or just indifferent, even toward people who have been closest to him.
An example of this behavior is seen in a young businessman who had started earning more money than his childhood friends. One day, in his suit, he met up with them and started burning 100-dollar bills in front of them, to show them “where they belonged.” In another example, after becoming famous, a musician disowned his parents, stating that they were dead. There was also a kind TV presenter who suddenly became very arrogant when he achieved a higher viewership. Many politicians who gain power start to aggressively eliminate people that disagree with them.
Very often this type of attitude, just like in the previous types, results in irreversibly destroying achieved success.
#4 Paranoid type:
“Certainly someone or something will try to take it away from me”
In this case, the achieved success reveals the anxious aspects of an individual’s personality, and she becomes afraid of losing what she has just attained. Some such people are suspicious of others, being convinced of their mischievous intentions. (A great example is that of gold fever, when people become obsessed with the idea that everybody around them was trying to steal their gold.) Others don’t actually become anxious about the bad intentions of the people surrounding them, they just believe that the success is too good to be true, and sooner or later it will be taken away from them somehow—a belief often held by adult children of alcoholics who find a stable partner.
It is hard to enjoy a good and happy relationship if one is always focused on the breakup that will occur sooner or later. It is also very hard to feel satisfied about being the head of state when one’s sleep is disturbed by visions of assassination. In such cases, an individual has the impression that she was leading a more satisfying and joyful life before she achieved success.
#5 Schizotypal type:
“I need to keep doing the magic trick that brought me success”
This individual, probably the least-common type described here, gets strongly attached to repeating one or several actions that he performed on his way to success but that are not the true causes of the success. In consequence, he gives these actions special meaning. Success enhances his tendency toward magical thinking, which sometimes reaches enormous proportions.
To give an example, if the individual prayed before an important—and eventually successful—experience, he will give this action primary significance. At the same, time he will forget about other much more important factors that contributed to his success.
Of course, there are many other examples that are based on the same thinking: putting on a lucky shirt, giving money to a homeless person, meeting a certain friend, not taking a shower on race day, or kissing a teammate on the football field, to name just a few. Sound strange? Maybe, but it happens! Moreover, sometimes this can really work as a kind of placebo.
These particular actions clearly do not grant mystical powers, but only provide that illusion. This can be seen when, after the first success, the following uses of a particular trick actually end in failure. Unfortunately, an individual’s memory retains only the first instance, when his success was predated by the trick. One man prayed when he was in danger of losing his job. Soon after that, his boss decided to give him one last chance. He learned to use this praying tactic in every critical situation, and he didn’t change his strategy even after a string of subsequent professional failures.
So what should you do when you achieve success? First of all, knowing the above scenarios, carefully look for any tendencies described in this article. If you fall prey to any of them, remind yourself that this way of perceiving yourself and the surrounding world is neither correct nor beneficial. The interesting aspect of these five types of reactions to success is that until you achieve a success, certain tendencies and certain behaviors won’t reveal themselves. That is because, up until that point, they didn’t have the proper environment to express themselves.
If it’s already too late and you’re exhibiting one (or more) of these traits, trying to counteract it is still worthwhile. If these tendencies are expressed in a mild form, just becoming aware of them may be enough to prevent a particular behavior. If the tendencies are strong, it is best to speak to an experienced professional.
Let me emphasize once more that not every success leads to the appearance of the described tendencies. But they are common enough to make paying attention to our own successes worthwhile, and in this way increase the chances of future success.