Module 12 Innerworth — Mind over markets

Chapter 11

The Unconscious Drive to Fail

Ask traders about their reasons for trading, and most will tell you, “I want to make huge profits.” Although most traders get into the business to make a significant return on their money, the vast majority blow out their accounts. Why do so many traders fail? The obvious reason for many is that they just don’t know how to trade. They don’t use proper risk controls. They don’t have enough financial resources. They don’t have proper instruction or an efficient trading platform. They don’t have solid, reliable trading strategies. And for many, they don’t have good reference points; they don’t have a clear understanding of how the markets work.

Any or all of these factors can spell disaster for the novice trader. One doesn’t need to explore the depths of one’s psyche to find other reasons for failure. That said, there’s an interest among many would-be traders as to the extent of unconscious processes thwart their trading efforts. Perhaps, unconsciously, there is a hidden motive for self-sabotage. Seasoned traders are especially interested in this topic. Many prominent, highly successful traders end up losing most of their capital in the end, and many never come back. Some have speculated that a hidden motive for self-sabotage is the reason for such failures. It’s worth considering in a little detail, either just for fun or as a serious line of inquiry, depending on your preferences and worldview.

Years ago, Freud wrote about people who fail after achieving great success in “Those Wrecked by Success.” According to Freud, some people feel guilty and physically ill upon attaining a lifelong dream. Upon experiencing success, they aren’t comfortable with it, and unconsciously take steps to punish themselves for being successful.

Most contemporary research psychologists, in contrast, do not think people seek out failure, consciously or unconsciously. People experience failure because they cannot master difficult situations. In other words, traders don’t repeatedly fail because they have an unconscious wish to spoil their efforts, but trading is just plain hard. Traders repeatedly fail because they don’t have proper financial resources, solid trading strategies, or the proper mindset.

Psychoanalyst Roy Shafer argues, however, that some people view “success” as a type of failure, and in a twisted way, they avoid “success” because unconsciously they view it as a failure. For example, in one case study, a young man avoided success because he was afraid of doing better in life than his father, who was a failed all through his life. Veteran traders have made similar observations. Some novice traders don’t trade merely to make profits. They have a hidden agenda. They want to show their family and friends that they could be a success.

The problem with finding oneself in this circumstance is that while one may consciously strive for success, one has been given a powerful psychological message that he or she cannot succeed, and is not worthy of success. Unconsciously, it’s hard (but not impossible) to prove these significant others wrong. Whether good or bad, what your friends and family think of you is important. They define who you are, and unconsciously, you may not want to prove them wrong. It’s best not to let such psychological issues impact your trading, however. Always trade for yourself. Trade because you want to, not because you are out to prove anything to yourself or someone else. Doing so raises the stakes so high that you’ll put a lot of pressure on yourself to succeed, and that usually leads to failure.

As we’ve often said in this column, unconscious processes may not play a role for everyone who pursues trading. It’s an issue for some people, however. If you think your reasons for trading may reflect a need to satisfy past unconscious conflicts, it’s wise to work through some of these issues with a trading coach or other professional. Don’t let unconscious motives get the better of you. Identify them, work through them, and trade freely, effortlessly, and profitably.

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