There is a psychological condition that affects some people in such a way that they prevent their own progress. They fear to advance. They fear to progress and compete. They might even try to achieve high goals but often get stressed out and withdraw just before reaching the finish line and become losers. They fear their own heights, as evidenced by their probably pervasive acrophobia in the physical world. However, they justify their frustration by saying they don't want to compete and create frictions. They find it hard to try to secure something that others don't have, simply fearing rivalry. They find it a challenge to get involved in something aimed at bringing them to a better level in something, however small that hop might be, so they enjoy doing trivial and fruitless repetitive jobs. There is probably some kind of inferiority institutionalized in them that they believe in and subconsciously think they don't deserve more, making them see little achievements too much for themselves.
Thus, in short, is there an English term (either noun or adjective) to describe a person who prevents their own progress, out of mental disorders, bad past experiences, bad upbringing or whatever?

  • So, in your question does this person know they have the potential to be a champion but don't want to put in the hard work? Or do they lack self-confidence/motivation?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 7:46
  • @Mari-LouA I am not a coach actually, but yes I know they have the potential to be a champion. Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 7:47
  • 1
    I don't have a specific word, however I sometimes heard and used the expression "Fear of winning", "He became afraid to win". In sports - especially tennis as far as I know - it describes a player who fights well and with good self-confidence, earning good score advantage, up until the finish line / match ball, and at that point he suddenly starts to perform poorly and without confidence, and of course he eventually loses the match. It's a very real thing. A 100% tennis-specific alternative expression for this (translating literally from another language) is "His arm shortened". Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 9:42
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    This is, precisely, being timid. We use the term in a lot of other ways these days, but from what you described, it is timidity in the person. This can cause profoundly capable people to do amazingly well in practice and horribly in competition (or to simply avoid competition entirely). Consider this sentence: "Some of the people I learned the most from in terms of technique were simply too timid to compete themselves."
    – zxq9
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 15:09
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    @JasonStack No, I had actually written an anecdotal couplet then dropped the first sentence. This sentence was only relevant to me describing my own experience in training for certain sports -- that to learn how to compete I had to learn lessons from other people, as the timid ones are often great in technique but fail in execution. I just used this as an example of how to use the word.
    – zxq9
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 8:18

13 Answers 13


Consider Jonah complex:

The Jonah complex is the fear of success which prevents self-actualization, or the realization of one's potential. It is the fear of one's own greatness, the evasion of one's destiny, or the avoidance of exercising one's talents.


  • 4
    Why on earth did this get a downvote? Sure, I've never heard of it, but it's a perfect answer for the question.
    – AndyT
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 11:12
  • Thanks. This "Jonah Complex" thing is a great topic I had never heard of before. Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 14:14
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    While this does accurately describe the phenomenon, I don't think it's the best answer, because I don't think the majority of English speakers have ever heard it before. If I were to say to my friend, "I think that person has a Jonah Complex," my friend would look at me like I was nuts. If the OP is looking for a term that can actually be used in conversational English, something else might be better. Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 17:14
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    @JasonStack Though some speakers may not know what a Jonah Complex is -- I'd never heard of it myself -- many people might make an accurate guess, having at least some vague knowledge of the story. That said, a well-named trope is "Hope is Scary" and I've often wondered if this is the cause of some timidity in some people. "I might lose, so best not to play." It seems that very often the willingness to venture a risk is the difference between great doers (and those known and respected for valiant attempts) and the nameless riskless.
    – zxq9
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 11:29
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    It's funny: people on this site quote low appearance in Google searches as a reason for down voting an answer... And yet when (IMO) the best answer is somewhat esoteric, but easily Googlable, they also dismiss it. 馃槀
    – Peter K.
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 22:31

The behaviour is called self-sabotage (a Google search shows many articles about it).

But I don't know a word for a person who self sabotages. Self-saboteur is used but sounds artificial to me.


Own worst enemy


To 鈥媍ause most of 鈥媦our 鈥媝roblems or most of the 鈥媌ad things that 鈥媓appen to you yourself, because of 鈥媦our 鈥媍haracter.

Example in a sentence:

Carrie is her own worst 鈥媏nemy - she's always 鈥媋rguing with 鈥媝eople.

Source for definition and sample sentence: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/be-your-own-worst-enemy


Setting aside technical terms, the one word in the vernacular that names the person you describe is

One who advocates defeatism or accepts defeat.

Conduct tending to bring about acceptance of (the certainty of) defeat; a disposition to accept defeat.

["defeatism, n.". OED Online. September 2015. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/48747 (accessed November 27, 2015).]

Putting those definitions together, a 'defeatist' is

One who advocates or practices conduct tending to bring about acceptance of (the certainty of) defeat; one whose disposition is to accept defeat.

  • 1
    Reminds me of the recent Muppet movie "I can't believe I'm voting for giving up..."
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 19:28

self-defeating (adjective): serving to frustrate, thwart, etc., one's own intention or interests: His behavior was certainly self-defeating.

source: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/self-defeating


The behavior described by the OP generally results of the fear of failure.

Fear of failure was first uncovered in the 1960s by psychologists such as John Atkinson. Working at Stanford University, Atkinson conducted a series of experiments on children -- setting them reward-based tasks in order to test their motivation. Robert Kelsey Robert Kelsey

He noticed they divided into two camps: those focused on winning the reward, who approached the task with what he called a "need for achievement," and those focused on their seemingly inevitable failure, who had what Atkinson termed a "fear of failure" based on their desire to avoid the public humiliation of failure. (Source: CNN)


You nearly quoted the definition of a person with the anxiety disorder.

There are many different types of anxiety, so if you have a very specific disorder in mind, you can read up on the wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anxiety_disorder

  • 1
    I am not an expert on psychological conditions. In fact, I described what I have witnessed in and heard from the person. Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 8:05

Self-destructive may be the answer you are looking for:

dictionary.com defines self-destructive as harmful, injurious, or destructive to oneself:

"His constant arguing with the boss shows he's a self-destructive person".


That sounds like impostor syndrome, a pathological belief that you haven't earned or don't deserve your own success:

Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. (Wikipedia)

  • But the OP is describing someone reluctant, someone who falls at the last hurdle so to speak, a person who doesn't reach their peak; whereas people who have this syndrome are high achievers. They generally succeed in what they set out to do. That's my understanding, correct me if I'm mistaken.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 7:21
  • @Mari-LouA That's true. But they might do things like sabotage their own salary or career advancement because they don't seek raises or promotion. Commented Nov 28, 2015 at 17:53

Specifically in a sports context, that person can be described as "choking". e.g. "At a crucial moment, he chokes." While the word to describe the act is commonplace, I cannot think of a word to refer to the person that is in common use.

Much as with self-sabotage and self-destruct, the act has commonplace idioms but the person does not.


If the condition you described rises to the level of a phobia, the term sometimes used in psychology is

A morbid fear of failure.

(atychiphobia. (n.d.) Segen's Medical Dictionary. (2011). Retrieved November 27 2015 from http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/atychiphobia)

Also used is

kakorrhaphiophobia [鈥歬盲路k蓹鈥歳af路膿路蓹鈥瞗艒路b膿路蓹]
Abnormal fear of failure.

(atychiphobia. (n.d.) McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E. (2003). Retrieved November 27 2015 from http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/atychiphobia)

For both terms, the person so afflicted is described by the term with -ic replacing -ia as the last two letters. So,

an atychiphobic
a kakorrhaphiophobic

  • For the nouns, can we also say an "atychiphobe" or a "kakorrhaphiophobe"? (Wikipedia uses the former term in its article on atychiphobia, alongside "person with atychiphobia.")
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 8:15
  • @sumelic, I'm guessing yours is not a real question but, treating it as if it is, sure, you can use a noun rather than the substantive. However, in some contexts using the noun might be considered inappropriate, because of personal sensitivities. I would favor the substantive in all vernacular use that I can imagine at the moment.
    – JEL
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 8:58
  • Ah. It is a real question; I haven't researched it so I was hoping you would do it for me. My intuition is that "phobe" would be better, based on my preference for the phrases "an arachnophobe" and "a claustrophobe" over "an arachnophobic" or "a claustrophobic." Isn't "substantiative" a synonym for "noun"? Are you referring to the "-ic" form as the substantiative?
    – herisson
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 9:02
  • @sumelic, This is too chatty. // I'm guessing your 'intuition' is based partly on an insufficiency of technical training and relative inexperience...but that's just a guess. Last question first: yes ("substantive"). Penultimate: sometimes. If you follow the bread-crumbs, "noun-equivalent" is a 'loose' equivalence, thus = OED: 鈥榦f or relating to a noun鈥. Pragma: middle-road "person-first" terminology, the substantive allows backpedalling if offense is taken. I did think of acceptable vernacular uses: verse, fiction, quotes. Otherwise, you're practicing without a license, as they say. Nobigdeal.
    – JEL
    Commented Nov 27, 2015 at 10:17

A dysfunctional perfectionist.

  • Please explain your answer in full. Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 11:31

You can say that the person "can't get out of his/her own way."

  • Please explain in full how this answers the question. Commented Dec 1, 2015 at 11:32

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