A Successful Loser’s Fear of Success




I have been intimately acquainted with my doppelganger for many years, so I know quite a lot about him. Walter is a loser, suffering from a compulsion to repeatedly fail time and time again while not even knowing that he is suffering. 

Walter and I never became good friends, and the fault is mine. Although I converse with him at length when I inadvertently bump into him, I dislike him for some reason unbeknown to me. I go out of my way to avoid him, but there he is again. He is aware of my antipathy, but he does not mind. In fact, he is the one who maintains our relationship, and considers me as his best friend! 

“You are like the cheeseburgers at Tony’s,” he explained. “I was starving when I walked in there the first time, so I ordered a cheeseburger and ate it. I have been eating that cheeseburger for years now, and that’s all I order. You are like that cheeseburger. I met you and I liked you. I know you don’t like me that much but you are good enough for me, so you are stuck with my friendship.” 

Walter felt abandoned at an early age. His mother died before he was a year old. He was left with his grandmother for awhile. His memories of that period are fragmentary. He recalls battles with his older brother in the kitchen; his brother fell asleep on the couch and died a few years later. He remembers riding in the back of a Greyhound bus; watching people blow smoke rings; eating a pack of cigarettes, getting sick on the tobacco, jumping up and down and falling through the bottom of his crib. 

His father remarried and took him into his new home. He remembers nothing of this second, short-lived marriage. His stepmother was the mayor’s daughter. The mayor was a leading Mason. Walter’s dad hated Masons because he felt they were involved in sinister conspiracies. As the marriage fell apart, the mayor had Walter’s father arrested and sent from jail to jail for several weeks. In the interim, Walter’s stepmother filed motions for custody. But his father was released, and then he “kidnapped” Walter and left him at a foster home at age six. He remembers being dropped off. It was a shocking experience. He grew to love his foster home, however, although he looked forward to his father’s visits every few months. 

Walter’s foster parents were kind to him. He had several curious sexual experiences. His foster brother repeatedly tried to teach him to have intercourse with the girl next door when he was nine. He was a good boy, even when they innocently used her mother’s cosmetics to decorate the walls. 

He does not know why, but when people asked him what he was going to do when he grew up, he would answer, “I’m going to be a bum.” In fact his greatest fear is of becoming a homeless derelict. 

His father eventually remarried, picked him up and took him to a new home in another state—he cried all the way. When he arrived there, he heard his new stepmother screaming, “Get rid of him or I’ll leave you.” 

Walter’s life was relatively miserable thereafter. He was a bright boy, but he turned to juvenile delinquency, which amounted to little more than breaking a few garage windows, and using a cigarette to burn a hole in a curtain that caught afire when he left, almost burning down the church. He was only bad because he thought he would prove his stepmother right: “He is a bad boy!” she frequently said. His father told him he was “born of a bad seed,” from “insane” people, explaining that “mental illness is inherited from fathers. Little did Walter know at the time that his father, who enjoyed reading psychology books, would soon be diagnosed as a “paranoid schizophrenic.” 

He ran away from home at age thirteen and lived on the streets of several cities. He eventually managed to lie his way into good jobs and to hold them. He felt rage from time to time, expressing it by drinking heavily, breaking things around the house, but he would stop short of injuring anyone; he said he could not bring himself to murder or maim anyone, and that kept him out of the mob. 

He wanted to create the family he had not had, so he married. He was immature and inept, but he was learning. Just as he was really improving his relations with his wife because he genuinely loved her, she left him. He was crushed: he fell into a deep depression for two years thereafter during which he attempted suicide three times. After the last attempt, which almost succeeded, the doctor at the hospital told him his wife had called to wish him dead, at which point the depression lifted. 

He tried marriage again a few years later with the same result—divorce—except this time he left his wife, and was glad he did. His second marriage reminded him of his miserable life with his second stepmother, so he felt no remorse so when he left his second wife and went directly into the arms of another woman he had just met. Since that time he was quick to break off any relationship even if it was going well. 

He travelled around the country from one job to another. Just when he would be up for a promotion or raise, he said he felt compelled to quit and move on to realize a childhood dream of becoming a great American author. He might have done that without having to hold down jobs if only he had played his cards right when he knew he had a winning hand. He recounted to me six separate occasions where he had an opportunity to secure a small fortune for himself, but he passed up certain success, saying he was afraid to sign, for instance, the real estate contract, or engage in some other business deal. 

He returned to our hometown for a few years, but then he quit a good job, and ran away again, to Southern California, to a place he had previously loved, where he had of course previously failed when just on the verge of success. He was offered an offshore position that would have allowed him to avoid taxes and to become a multi-millionaire and retire to writing books, but he was frightened by the prospect of success, and made such an ass of himself that the job offer was withdrawn. 

All this because he felt compelled to take up writing immediately. Since then he confined his writing to material for which there is little or no demand, and has made no effort to market it. He was almost broke, and planned to jump to his death when he ran out of money. I advised him to get help, but he laughed me off; he seemed to be delighted with his life as it is. 

He was surprised when I looked in the mirror and said I was researching the phenomenon known as fear of success, and had a book in mind: 

“What a coincidence!” he exclaimed, “You ought to write about me, for crying out loud!” 

He permitted me to describe his predicament and to publish the following little confession:

“I invariably work my own ruin. I know exactly what I am doing, but I cannot stop myself from spiting the respectable self I built up, usually by writing useless, pessimistic tracts. I must throw away everything: my job, my residence, my savings, my favorite hobbies, and the savior or two who mystically shows up with an even better opportunity than the one I just had in hand and threw away. Then I devote myself to making notes and developing them into articles nobody wants to read. There goes all the hard work and everything I had to show for it. I have three things left besides worn-out clothes: a flute, a camera, and a pair of binoculars. People do not want me around without money and property, thank God! This time I have almost succeeded with my return to poverty, at which point I would normally ruin that successful decline by climbing heroically back out of it. But this time there is no time for that; hence my effort will soon result in my self-assisted death. But do not worry! I have it coming and I will enjoy the light at the end of the tunnel. You see, despite the mental anguish this destruction of my social or reputable self causes, despite the anxieties which I can avoid by thinking about irrelevant subjects, I am usually incredibly happy! 

“You may write me up as the excellent textbook case in order to help society get over itself. Please say I have never submitted to psychoanalysis, or psycho-therapeutic drugs except self-administered weed, horse tranquilizer, and alcohol. I simply love myself too much to commit myself to socialization therapy or get hopped up on coke, speed, heroin and such. 

“Now I am completely alone without a wife or girlfriend, without a job, a church, a club. a real home. I am a recluse. That leads me to wonder, How can anyone not be happy being all alone by himself to love himself all the more? 

“It’s not that I hate others. Not at all. I love everybody but can only love them in the abstract. My past has always been a mistake. That’s why I withdrew from it, to figure it out and save myself, and as the great author of my dreams and schemes, to save mankind from being drowned. 

“I became obsessed with the chances lost in the past in contrast to my great last chance of being a hero and saving the world. But to do be an artist I had to have my solitude. After awhile, I realized I was in a trap, that I had entombed myself. But then I began to really enjoy being alone with my reflections, and I began to think, with happiness like this, who needs other people?”

Walter, despite his repetition compulsion, does not really seem to be experiencing any anxiety; quite to the contrary. He evidently takes delight in the withdrawal of his love from things in order to love his favorite thing better; in fine, his beloved self, whatever that is, for he refuses to define it. He claims he is his own “best friend” in the sense that “friend” means “free.” I could not help but think he would be his own worst enemy in the absolute freedom he obviously desires, for that sort of freedom is a dud, a bomb which cannot explode because it has no resistance. Absolute freedom from objects is really nothing but nothing, or “death.” Objects kill the Subject, but it’s best to stay in between two hard rocks in my opinion. 

Yet there does seems to be a trace of falsity to Walter’s happy face in the mirror, as if it were a cover for pain, or even a product of pain. Is he some sort of a masochist? Does his love keep his death instinct at bay? I know I would be severely depressed if I were him. I imagine he wakes up sometimes and is terrified for a moment before he puts on his cosmetic. He said not when I asked. 

He was bubbling over with enthusiasm, like some sort of a god-possessed maniac, the last time I spoke with him. I mentioned God; he laughed, insisting an objective god is absurd. When I asked him if he believed he was a subjective god, he said, yes, he was, but I got the impression he was kidding. I suggested he seek professional help instead of leaping off his balcony with his manuscript, which he said he was doomed to do. He said anyone in their right mind would kill themselves right away, and hung up on me. I thought of calling Social Services, but decided not to; better to leave well enough alone. 

Walter’s disposition does not necessarily prove Freud true on the death instinct. He demonstrates a propensity to repeat behavior that causes them to fail, as well as tendencies which appear to be self-destructive. Appearances, however, are deceiving, and our nature hopelessly complex. He certainly takes pleasure in surviving, and he succeeds, in a way, by failing. In fact, he identifies himself as a “successful loser.” 

Swedenborg said, “Love is your life.” Walter’s instinctive love of life masks the death instinct Freud would abstract from it by boiling off the love. Freud recognized that people compulsively repeat both pleasurable and painful “material,” but he wanted to reduce the repetition down to only those “rare instances” where the death instinct is distinct. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud mentions cases where the “perpetual recurrence of the same thing” is obvious in active behavior associated with a person’s character trait: the man who is always betrayed by his friends; the benefactor whose protégés are always ungrateful; the lovers whose various affairs have the same conclusion. 

“We are much more impressed,” Freud wrote, “by cases where the subject appears to have a passive experience, over which he has no influence, but in which he meets with a repetition of the same fatality. There is the case, for instance, of the woman who married three successive husbands each of whom fell ill soon afterwards and had to be nursed by her on their death-bed.” 

Well, that certainly rings a bell today: we know of several cases over the past few years where mothers lost their children and wives lost their husbands; evidence was dug up sometime later, even years later, and they were charged with serial-murders. That, however, proves or disproves nothing in respect to the death instinct. Freud, after mentioning his examples, went on to say, “If we take into account observations such as these… we shall find courage to assume that there really does exist in the mind a compulsion to repeat which overrides the pleasure principle.” Furthermore, “Enough is left unexplained to justify the hypothesis of a compulsion to repeat – something that seems more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it overrides. But if a compulsion to repeat does operate in the mind, we should be glad to know something about it…” 

Indeed. Therefore, with Walter’s assistance lately, I persist with my research for what may be my seminal work on the fear of success, noting that many psychiatrists insist there is no such thing as a compulsive death drive. That issue is, in any event a nonevent, metaphysical and irrelevant to scientific practice even as a working hypothesis. It is best in this business to follow in Newton’s footsteps; they abhor “hypotheses” and prefer to “stick to the business at hand.” On the other hand, I believe that if the shoe fits and is worn well with good effect, what does it matter whether it exists or not? 

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