In my work as a coach, I often encounter people who have worked hard all their lives to achieve success at the cost of their happiness and health. They use the word “overachiever” to describe themselves with a mix of pride and shame.
As a recovering overachiever, I’m very familiar with that paradoxical feeling. I also empathize with the sense of isolation and invisibility overachievers experience. Others think, “You’re successful. What do you have to complain about?”
This makes overachievers question whether their suffering is legitimate, which makes them stuff their feelings down even more.
Myths exist about overachievers because that’s exactly the point.
Overachievement is supposed to hide the truth of what is really going on. But once you see it, you’ll never unsee it.
Myth #1 — Overachievers are naturally gifted.
Many overachievers were accustomed to being called “gifted” and “talented” since they were kids. The pressure to keep up this image drives them to put up a facade of natural brilliance and genius.
But what others perceive as a “gift” is actually a level of effort, toil and sweat others don’t see. Overachievers fixate on doing whatever necessary to hit the mark they think they need to hit.
They do things like stay up late, sleep at work, skip meals and breaks, replace sleep with stimulants, forgo socializing or dating, even cut corners or cheat-anything that will give them the edge they need to come out on top as compared to those around them.
Observers of this behavior marvel at their stellar work ethic and drive, their commitment and perseverance. But what they don’t see is that overachievers subject themselves to brute force, churn and burn tactics that consistently leave them feeling exhausted and depleted.
Myth #2 — Overachievers are confident and self-assured.
On the outside, there should be no question as to the competence and ability of someone who receives consistent praise and recognition from others. But overachievers can’t seem to shake a deep sense of doubt about their worthiness.
To overachievers, achieving is their comfort zone. So their confidence comes from a sense of control that they can repeat the results they’ve gotten before. However true confidence is a belief in oneself despite uncertainty or risk.
When overachievers are confronted with unknown or unfamiliar challenges, they lose any self-assuredness they had. They become anxious, vigilant and intense. They overthink and overanalyze. They pull out all the stops and use their tried and true strategy of fixation and overwork to try to guarantee success at any cost.
Myth #3 — Overachievers love working and helping.
You might think that someone who chooses to devote so much of their time and energy working and consistently going above and beyond for others probably loves what they do. Otherwise, why would they do that?
Thing is, overachievers don’t experience their choice as a choice. Instead they’re fulfilling an obligation and a duty. Their reasons for why are varied depending on the story they carry, but what they all have in common is that they feel like they must deliver.
Because of this lack of choice, overachievers often take on more than others around them. They have trouble saying No especially when the asker is an authority figure. This makes them feel resentful towards others who aren’t “pulling their weight”.
Even despite all of this, they still manage to overdeliver. This elicits reactions of pleasant surprise, delight, awe and admiration from others for how amazingly effortless they make it seem. To an overachiever, this reaction secures their status as an indispensable member of the group, but it also reinforces how unseen and misunderstood they are.
Myth #4 — Overachievers love achieving and winning.
It’s not really about the trophies, straight As, promotions, raises, top ranks, record-breaking numbers, etc. Overachievers love what those things give them: a sense of approval, love and belonging they crave more than anything else.
So you might assume that overachievers feel happy when they finally receive that approval and love they were seeking, right? Wrong. Even after they obtain what they worked so hard to gain, they still question in the back of their minds if it was worth it.
Because deep down, they wish to be loved and to belong for who they are, not for what they can do. Their fear that who they are is not enough is what drives them to continue seeking love in the only way they know how.
Overachievers are much more afraid of failure than they are excited about success. This anxiety creates perfectionistic tendencies that alienates them even further from their inherent worthiness.
Myth #5 — Overachievers are all successful and have great lives.
Overachievers who use money and career status as their medium for seeking love and belonging likely do accumulate wealth and status. However the drive to overachieve is relative to where and from whom love and belonging is being sought.
Overachievers can operate in all facets of society including social media, parenting, activism, community service, nightlife, sports, fitness, food, art, sex, gangs and drug culture. Overachievers usually engage in excelling at several of these areas at the same time even if they’re behaving “badly”.
In extreme cases, overachievers who have lost all hope at being loved turn their addictive drive towards self-destructive behaviors as if to prove to others the depth of their unlovableness.
Despite drastically different external outcomes, the underlying driving force is the same.
Overachievement is an orientation we can all relate to
In this article I’ve been using the word “overachiever” a lot. This makes it seem like a person is either an overachiever or they’re not. But overachievement is an orientation towards needs-fulfillment that uses external accomplishments to fill an internal lack.
Our culture encourages overachievement through the way we teach our kids, the stories we tell, and the behaviors we reward. So if you grew up here, you’ve likely been indoctrinated to some degree.
If any of this sounded like you, here are some questions to reflect on:
- In what areas of your life do you seek love and approval through external accomplishments? What would happen if you didn’t?
- How do you measure your worth and value as a human being? (Clue: Look at how you measure others)
- What level of success are you waiting to achieve before you allow yourself to feel safe, secure, happy, proud? Where did that standard come from?
- What areas of your life do you value but are currently neglecting?
- Who are you when you’re not doing?
Overachievers, don’t wait until your breaking point. If you’d like to speak confidentially about your challenges with a compassionate and non-judgemental person who’s been there, let’s talk. I’m here for you.
Originally published at stancecoaching.com on November 14, 2019.