When he retired from football after the 1998 season, Barry Sanders was on pace to break most of the NFL’s major rushing record. Apart from being a phenomenal running back, Sanders was known for his retiring nature. In an era when NFL players were taking big-play celebrations to new levels of flamboyance, Sanders tended to quietly hustle off the field after scoring a touchdown.
“I always thought it was interesting how he’d just hand the ball to a ref, and then run over to the sidelines almost like he wanted to hide,” says Craig D. Marker, an associate professor of psychology at Mercer University College of Health Professions in Atlanta.
Marker recalls listening to an interview with Sanders, who won the Heisman Trophy as a college player at Oklahoma State. Sanders said he hadn’t wanted to go to the Heisman award ceremony because he didn’t want all the attention. While he’s only speculating, Marker says he wouldn’t be surprised if Sanders left football in part because he wanted to avoid the limelight that would have come if he went on to break all those NFL records.
Most of us associate social anxiety with a fear of negative attention. But Marker and other experts who study anxiety disorders say a fear of public plaudits or positive recognition can also be an anxiety trigger.
“We usually call it fear of positive evaluation,” says Thomas Rodebaugh, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Rodebaugh has studied this form of anxiety, and has also worked to develop a Fear of Positive Evaluation Scale (FPES) to assess its severity.
While it’s true that some people with social anxiety disorders may dislike any kind of attention being trained in their direction—including the positive kind—what Rodebaugh is describing is something subtly different. He says fear of positive evaluation is a distinct issue, and one that isn’t always accompanied by a fear of negative attention.
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Before you roll your eyes—seriously, what are we going to pathologize next?—understand that none of this includes run-of-the-mill shyness or modesty. “It’s completely normal for people to experience these forms of anxiety from time to time,” he says. He mentions the cringe-inducing experience of having waiters cart out a cake and sing Happy Birthday as one situation many people would find unpleasant.
“But for some, fear of positive evaluation can be a larger problem,” he adds. “It can get in the way of what they want to do or their goals.” For example, if a person is intentionally underachieving at work or avoiding professional recognition—the kinds of self-sabotage that could stunt their careers—those are situations when a fear of positive evaluation may require some kind of professional evaluation.
What exactly are these people worried about? “Most say they just didn’t want the attention, or were more comfortable being a wallflower—just not being noticed,” Marker says. Others may worry that close scrutiny, even in a positive context, could lead to negative evaluations alter on, Rodebaugh says. He mentions a somewhat related condition known as imposter syndrome, which is basically the feeling that you’re a fraud or a fake, and that any moment people are going to discover the truth about you.
Where does a fear of positive evaluation come from? “I think part of it is culture,” Marker says. “For people who come from cultures where humility is prized, being celebrated is tough.”
Some Japanese cultural norms are a good example. “The Japanese aren’t nearly as self-promoting as Americans are,” says Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. “One reason for that is they don’t want to appear to be superior.” He says it’s not that the Japanese don’t want to be superior; it’s they don’t feel comfortable appearing to be superior.
Another explanation for this fear comes out of evolutionary psychology. “There’s the idea that doing too well could put you in conflict with the people in charge, and that could lead to problems,” Rodebaugh says. Although there’s no way to test this hypothesis, it makes a lot of sense. Everyone’s always gunning for the top dog. If you’re being singled out as exceptional in some way, it’s possible that could put a target on your back or otherwise makes you some enemies.
Rodebaugh says the standard treatment for a fear of positive evaluation isn’t much different from that of other social anxiety disorders. “There’s exposure, which is a general term for going ahead and doing the thing that is scary to do,” he says. The idea behind this mode of therapy is that, by facing the thing that frightens you, you’ll see that it’s much more benign than what your imagination had concocted. (Exposure therapy is often used to treat people with specific phobias—like a fear of dogs or spiders.)
“The tricky part of this is knowing how to approach the thing you fear,” Rodebaugh says. He adds that cognitive behavioral therapy—a form of short-term, problem-oriented psychotherapy—can help with this part. “People get the idea of facing their fears, but it can be difficult to figure out what their fear is exactly, or how to face it,” he adds.
Marker agrees that confronting the thing that frightens you is a helpful tactic. “If we push ourselves when we’re uncomfortable, we broaden our horizons and become stronger for it,” he says. “We have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
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