Being successful provides rewards, and the stimulation intrinsic to being driven can result in the self-perpetuating nature of such behavior. However, financial, personal, or social gains from success, as well as any addiction to the high of your own drive, may be only a small part of why you are driven to achieve.
Apprehension about failing, and attempts to avoid failure, can drive the pursuit of success. People who are successful in their endeavors or careers often respond affirmatively to the idea that a fear of failure motivates them. When you fear failure, you wonder what other people might think of you, or what you might think of yourself, if you are unsuccessful at completing a project or do not triumph in an effort to realize a goal. Failure is not feared in the fear of failure, but instead what’s feared is shame associated with failing.1, 2, 3
Certain messages are conveyed to the self when failure occurs, which motivate success in an attempt to avoid acknowledging them. Failure can lead one to have a sense of unworthiness and an expectation of abandonment.4 So although a fear of failure represents an avoidance of a painful state of shame, it provides focus and directed attention that can motivate task completion, and, in turn, result in success. The fear of failure as a fear/shame-related cognition is motivating, adaptive, and works well for many people. How interesting it is that apprehension about the possibility of a negative emotional experience is the basis behind the achievement of goals.
When you consider that shame is what’s eluded in the fear of failure, the motivation enlisted to avoid it makes sense—shame is an emotion that everyone dreads. In his book, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self, Donald Nathanson discusses avoidance as one of four learned responses to shame that take the form of whatever cultural practices are part of the individual. Other responses to shame include withdrawal, attacking others, and attacking the self. Shame avoidance, in his view, serves to protect us from the scrutiny of others and ensures that nothing in our personal world will be revealed that can embarrass us.
People driven to succeed, many of whom are considered to be workaholics, have been described as living with a core of shame handled by avoidance—shame that is masked by a veneer of sophistication.5 The self-inflicted noxious feeling of shame can be reduced by improving oneself: “a relentless search for specific personal defects that can be overcome as if the achievement of perfection in the present might erase the bad old days of the past.”6 One might attempt to increase self-esteem through techniques of accumulation and repair—such as being a winner at something, being in the public eye as an object of positive regard, or the pressured pursuit of new levels of ability, competence, beauty, or wealth—in an effort to disavow unbearable internalized shame.7
Similarly, you may become driven as a result of a positive adaptation to adversity that began as shame avoidance. As a result of childhood circumstances that can be disavowed by achievement, you may have become repeatedly driven in order to maintain the perception that you have overcome the limitations of family members before you. Children will explain away parental failure by adopting a sense of themselves as being personally defective, which allows the child to trade unbearable fear for merely uncomfortable shame.8
Although being driven may activate the emotion of pride and serve to disguise shame, rather than eliminate it, any improvement you can make in your life may ease the agonizing effects of shame enough so that you can look at yourself rather than respond with avoidance. “Shame is a teacher,” asserts Nathanson, “often drawing us within ourselves to think deeply about the self.”9 Being driven may serve to disavow shame’s harsh effects on your sense of self, yet it is only through intimate connection, and developing your ability to tolerate distress when shame directs you to avoid, withdraw, or respond with aggression against yourself or another, that you can truly learn what shame can convey. Only love that is rooted in the will to affirm the value of the other can absorb shame.10
For information about my current book for young adults, Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings (American Psychological Association Magination Press, August 2012), see my website: http://www.marylamia.com
1. Atkinson, J. (1957). Motivational determinants of risk-taking behavior. Psychological Review, 64, 359–372.
2. Birney, R., Burdick, H., & Teevan, R. (1969). Fear of Failure. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
3. McGregor, H. & Elliot, A. (2005). The shame of failure: Examining the link between fear of failure and shame. Pers. Soc. Psychology Bull. 31:2, 218-31.
5. Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
6. Nathanson, D., p. 341, cited above.
7. Nathanson, D., cited above.
8. Nathanson, D., cited above.
9. Nathansoin, D., p. 211), cited above.