Being an overachiever is a blessing and a curse! It’s a blessing because you can get more stuff done than most human beings. The internal motivation runs high almost all the time. The fire, the energy, the drive, the discipline, the consistency are amazing qualities that have propelled you through life, work, hobbies, passions, and many obstacles and challenges. Perfection is always in sight, but as we all know, it’s rarely achievable. Aside from the fact that perfection is rare in general, the mindset of an overachiever is often stuck on “not good enough”. There’s always something missing. There’s always something more to be done, more to pursue and go after.
On the negative side, the curse of being an overachiever is the lack of inner peace, the inability to relax, the inability to enjoy the fruits of your labor, the need to control all of the moving pieces (in your life and your loved ones), and from a mental health perspective, the chronic anxiety that at some point blends with one’s personality and way of functioning and it’s hard to separate and identify. It may come in different doses, but it’s always with you. And it’s not pleasant! For you or for the people around you.
In this 3-part beginner series (I know it’s long, but as an overachiever myself, I couldn’t get myself to stop), you will:
Part 1: Understand there’s a clear connection between anxiety and overachievement
Part 2: Look at the two main areas on how anxiety shows up: your thinking and your physical symptoms
Part 3: What you can do about it to actually make a difference
In this post, we will just take a look at the clear connection between anxiety and being an overachiever. Let’s first dive into what anxiety is:
Anxiety is a normal defensive reaction of our brain when it’s exposed to threats.
Better known as the flight-or-fight response, it is a very important survival mechanism and we all have it. It’s the physiological response that accompanies negative emotions to prepare us to fight anything that is threatening our well-being or to run away from such dangerous situations. Although the flight-or-fight response is primarily built in for physical threats, like if a bear or a robber attacked us, after many years of human evolution, our brains don’t really know the difference between physical threats and emotional threats such as the ones caused by a fight with a loved one, the news of a painful betrayal, or stimuli that remind us of some childhood or past trauma.
How does this relate to an overachiever?
Well, the overachievement traits didn’t just happen overnight. Part of it is genetic, part of it is modeled, part of it is taught. That pretty much means that an overachiever has at least one parent who’s an overachiever who passed on the temperament genetically (those are your personality tendencies, high strung vs. laid back), and then modeled an overachieving lifestyle, and then taught and pushed the child to overachieve.
Growing up with an overachiever parent is not easy and it’s not pleasant most of the times. It’s an anxiety-producing environment ALL THE TIME for a young brain that doesn’t have any coping mechanisms to protect itself from this constant pressure.
A history of disapproval and constant messaging that you are not good enough molds the brain to be in constant alert.
Fear improves memory as the senses become hyperaware. These emotional memories are deeply stored in a small but powerful part of the brain, called the amygdala. I say “deeply” because they leave our full awareness and become part of our subconscious. They don’t leave our brain, we are just not aware of them. But they are there and they often come out as a fight-or-flight response when we are around our overachieving parents at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Have you ever wondered why 30 years later, without any apparent reason, you feel impatient, on the edge, ready to run or get into a fight any time you are in the room with your overachieving parent? It’s really an anxiety response triggered by their presence that activates the subconscious memories in the amygdala to signal that at some point or another your overachieving parent will say “you didn’t do this right” or “you should have done it a different way.”
Furthermore, do you find yourself annoyed by other people that are not interested, willing or able to accomplish things and get things done like you? Not only that you have the nagging feeling that you are not doing enough, but everyone around you is not doing enough? And the more that happens, the more you subconsciously try to push them to do more? Control their ways? Show them “the right way”? It comes from a good place, you are trying to help them out, but the truth is that it comes from a fierce need to control your anxiety.
Finally, overachievers have lots of rules, lots of MUSTS, OUGHTS and SHOULDS. For themselves and everyone else. These are absolutely learned from the overachiever parent and/or the family dynamic. If you grew up with a strict and rigorous, there’s no space for flexibility. The problem is that the more rules and strict guidelines there are, the higher the chances of not meeting them consistently. When not meeting all the rules and guidelines comes with a response of severe disapproval, shame, and guilt from the strict parent, it causes significant anxiety and depression.
Constant exposure to this approach leads to a constant state of tension, apprehension, and fear of not being good enough to meet those high standards. And what you grow up with usually replicates into the adult life in the relationship with your significant other or an authority figure like your boss. And then, it often gets replicated again with the kids and passed on to the next generation.
Truly, at its core, always chasing goals and perfection is an exhausting rat race searching for approval.
Does all of this ring a bell? I would love to know what parts make the most sense in a comment below. If you have some good stories, please share to help others feel less alone.
In part 2, we will take a look at how the chronic anxiety shows up in your life: physical symptoms, personality traits, patterns of thinking…aka “the crap you do and say that annoys you and everyone else.”
The most powerful message is that although you can’t change the past, the brain is plastic. With the right information, guidance, and your willingness to make a change, you can start changing your life today. Self-awareness and honesty are crucial.
Here are a couple of other posts that are related to emotional intelligence which is key to any self-development efforts:
And of course, did you check out our FREE Anxiety & Stress Management Center for even more tips and tricks?
ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a private practice psychologist in Litchfield Park, Arizona with experience in family therapy, ADHD, stress and anxiety management, and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage. Click HERE to check out her free resources on effective communication, emotional unavailability, intimacy, and anxiety management or join her at www.ruxandralemay.com for monthly blogs posts.