Starting a new year is especially impactful for people described as ‘overachievers’. I work closely with young influencers in the tech community of San Francisco, their struggles are as unique as their accomplishments. From completing their own annual ‘Year in Review’ life progress report (yes that really is a thing) to calculating their financial growth trajectory against the top 1% of earners, they are quick to succeed at what they set out to do. Most are well under 35, have founded and successfully run and/or profitably sold a company, and are already making more money than their parents. Nothing to frown at, right? Yet if this describes you, you’re probably thinking ‘meh, so has almost everyone else I know.’ It’s no easy feat to be impressive in the Bay Area.
Overachievers are known for their willingness to tackle new challenges, push themselves beyond their comfort zone in order to get ahead of their peers, and are highly effective at solving problems. Yet high achieving people also tend to privately wonder “Am I the only one who has a hard time relaxing and enjoying myself? Why can’t I stop worrying about falling behind in life?” Overachievers invest much of their time investigating what ‘the right’ choices are, and can struggle with making definitive decisions out of fear of making ‘the wrong’ choice. Committing to a specific career direction, choosing a spouse, or deciding which city to settle down in can all be paralyzing decisions for overachievers. The painstaking (not to mention endless) deliberation of an overachiever can lead to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction, loss of authentic purpose, and ultimately, a barrier to enjoying the outcomes they’ve worked so hard to attain.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is especially effective at exposing and disrupting ineffective thinking styles that can paralyze people’s decision making and lead to feelings of chronic anxiety, emptiness and discontent
CBT-based strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and authentic purpose:
Redefine Happiness. Consider how often you think “I’ll be so happy when…or “I can’t wait until…” Stop placing a conditional clause on happiness, it prevents you from valuing your current circumstances as worthy of genuine satisfaction. Ironically, this thinking style begins as way to sustain motivation and increase tolerance for challenging periods in life. “I’ll be so happy when I finish this damn Ph.D.” (guilty as charged) There’s nothing wrong with expecting to feel great once something difficult is over or a life milestone has been met.
The Stumbling Block: When this ‘imagined future’ gets placed so far up on a pedestal that it diminishes your current circumstances, and prevents you from investing in present-day opportunities for satisfaction and joy.
The Faulty Logic: “If I let myself be happy with where I am right now, I’ll lose motivation to work hard, and I’ll stop striving for that next level of achievement.” FALSE. Work ethic is not driven by avoiding happiness. You aren’t doing yourself a favor by adopting an attitude of ‘my current life isn’t good enough, and I shouldn’t indulge in pleasure, lest I become complacent’. Nor does any particular achievement guarantee happiness.
The Solution: Keep your happiness barometer focused on the here and now. Allow yourself to experience real pleasure and contentment today, it will be the positive fuel that will restore and strengthen you for all your future endeavors. What if you aren’t sure what makes you genuinely happy? Instead of measuring every person, activity or experience as an opportunity to advance your station in life, start by asking yourself “Was that fun?”
“If you’re happy, that’s probably the most important thing. Everyone probably has their own definition of success, for me it’s happiness. Do I enjoy what I’m doing? Do I enjoy the people I’m with? Do I enjoy my life?” Michael Dell, Entrepreneur and Founder of Dell
Redefine Failure. Consider how often you label a situation or outcome in your life a ‘failure’. Many overachievers are quick to discount and devalue something that didn’t go exactly according to plan. Part of how people successfully achieve goals is by creating highly specific plans with measurable outcomes. However, overachievers are prone to self-punitive rumination when things don’t turn out precisely as planned, which leads to pervasive feelings self-doubt and inadequacy.
The Stumbling Block: Choosing to view something as a ‘failure’ blinds you to the value it can contribute to your life. Tying your sense of worth to quantifiable ‘wins’ and ‘failures’ robs you of the chance to be a whole person, whose contributions and very existence is valuable beyond achievement.
The Faulty Logic: “If something didn’t turn out how I wanted, it should be considered a fail. I wasted valuable time and now I’m behind with my life plan. This failure tarnishes me, and now I’m not as valuable as other people because of it.”
The Solution: Practice finding (and believing) in silver linings. In every outcome and life experience there is opportunity to learn and grow in profitable ways. Finding out what problem solving strategies and solutions don’t work and why, developing newfound courage, building emotional strength, practicing patience, gaining insights about how people and groups think and behave, increasing your ability to offer encouragement and compassion, uncovering resilience, experiencing autonomy and teamwork in new circumstances, the list is endless! The point is, the most successful, well-rounded people derive their critical personal development from all sorts of experiences and are better for it. Do not short-change yourself by writing off even your worst outcomes as worthless. Moreover, the value of your life cannot be quantified by successful achievement alone.
Success does not Guarantee Love. This is a big one. Huge actually. Many overachievers learned early in their life they are more likely to receive praise for their successes, which feels good- especially when it comes from influential people like parents or primary caregivers. Alice Miller wrote about this over 30 years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child. Being singled out for winning can make us feel special and desirable, increasing our awareness of social status. Criticism for not achieving can feel rejecting and painful and can lower our sense of self-worth. Over time, overachievers learn to associate social approval, love, admiration, inclusion, and even intimacy as being dependent on one’s success. It’s not that seeking social connections through common interests, values or achievements is misguided. But relying on social status to serve as the most critical criteria for building friendships or finding a romantic partner can result in relationships that never feel good enough or genuinely fulfilling.
The Stumbling Block: When we use our own version of ‘social status’ (prestigious academic or career achievements, artistic talent, wealth, power, socially recognized intellectual or physical superiority) as the primary focus for building our social circle or selecting a romantic partner, we can lose sight of the most important factors that make relationships feel good and lead to lasting love, happiness and intimacy. We run the risk of developing relationships that feel inauthentic and insecure.
The Faulty Logic: “My own relative success has led me win approval and special treatment from others. I’ve also learned to avoid painful criticism and negative judgment by demonstrating superior abilities compared to others. If I don’t choose someone whom matches or bolsters my success, I won’t feel genuinely good about myself or them. I can’t really love someone who doesn’t measure up to my expectations for success.”
The Solution: Building opportunities for growth through relationships is a healthy, if not critical part of one’s personal development. However, overachievers can place a high degree of pressure on themselves to select their social circle strategically, or risk failure in life. Many will point out quotes from high achieving leaders that suggest all social opportunities should be leveraged to boost one’s personal success. Business philosopher Jim Rohn “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with” or Michael Dell, Founder of Dell “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.” While this advice has merit, it can be misleading if taken out of context. It’s understandable to admire and be drawn towards people who show potential to uplift and improve us, but friendship and romance can’t survive without tenets like mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, respect, genuine affection and good will for one another, reciprocal generosity, and willingness to compromise in order to overcome challenges or disagreements.
Further, overachievers can sometimes fail to recognize or appreciate opportunities to learn from people whose personality strengths and achievements contrast with their own. Overachievers tend to want to find a spouse who ‘has it all’ which often ends up sounding like an ‘idealized and improved’ version of themselves. Instead, consider what personality styles are complimentary to your own. Keep in mind people can be ‘Type A’ at work, but ‘Type B’ in social and romantic relationships, or vice versa. Who you work well with at the office or studio may or may not be who you are best suited for romantically. People are often happier in relationships that provide an opportunity to balance each other in a way that is mutually beneficial. So allow some flexibility in how you define ‘smart and successful’, you are increasing your chances for developing healthy, happy and lasting friendships and romantic partnership.
Finding Direction and Purpose Through Self-Acceptance. One of the biggest challenges for young overachievers is narrowing down what direction to take their career ambitions. One theme I have heard repeatedly among high achieving millennials in my practice is “I don’t want to just be really successful at something, I want whatever I do to have meaningful social impact. It’s important for me to be a part of something that leads to positive change in the world.” What brings them into my office is that in spite of graduating with prestigious accolades or achieved early success in the tech/business sector, they struggle with feeling they are ‘doing the right thing with their life’. It’s not uncommon for overachievers to experience a surge of perfectionistic career-related FOMO that can be paralyzing and lead to anxiety and depression.
The Stumbling Block: The challenge for overachievers is that they excel in so many arenas that they have less cause for ruling out career choices. They can often feel pulled in many different directions at once, and experience heightened pressure to always “know what they’re doing, and have a plan”. Further, many high achievers are so conditioned to rank jobs based on external markers of success that they have a difficult time identifying and valuing their own personal enjoyment as a reason for making choices. The added pressure to “make a positive difference in the world” creates a feeling of constant unease and intimidation.
“These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop. The fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll.” William Deresiewicz, who penned the controversial essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” which reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift overachievers struggling to figure out how to navigate life.
The Faulty Logic: “I constantly feel like I don’t have enough concrete evidence to feel like I’m making the right major decisions, but I can’t afford to waste time doing things that aren’t part of a successful future. If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with my life all the time, I’m failing.”
The Solution: First accept that NO ONE can know with certainty they’re making ‘the right or best choices’ for their own future. Even people we believe turned out to be highly successful, happy and impressively socially responsible can’t look back and know they couldn’t have done things differently for ‘even better’ results. The point is, let yourself live your life and appreciate a wide range of experiences, including the lulls and pitfalls. Personal intuition and wisdom grow from a life full of twists and turns. Learn to trust your own gut feelings, they are the ultimate decision-making tools for making choices, and you can’t hone these tools without testing them out of different experiences. Feeling purposeful is entirely personal. You can gather all sorts of facts, create decision-making diagrams and consider data taken from public opinion. Sooner or later there will come a time when you cannot and will not know with any degree of certainty that something is going to pan out well. What you CAN do is trust your future self to have the strength, courage and wisdom to handle the outcome if the day comes when you need to change course. You’ll use the resources you have available, which will be invaluable wisdom gained from the experience, self-care strategies (you’ve hopefully been practicing along the way) and trusted social support. That’s all any of us can really do!
Dr. Christina Villarreal is a mental health expert, coach, consultant, educator and entrepreneur in the San Francisco Bay Area. For professional inquiries, visit her at www.drchristinavillarreal.com