She described herself as an “over-achiever who has lost her spark”. She’d been an achiever all her life – school captain, great grades at school, highest-performing employee… It seemed like she had it all – success, family, friends, and yet she told me “I’m over it all. I’ve forgotten what brings me joy and how to have fun. I don’t recognize the tired, negative, reclusive person I’ve become. It makes me sad.”
I know that a huge number of people reading this will relate to it. So very, very many high-achievers reach a point in their lives where it all feels pointless, empty, joyless.
Achievement in itself can be exhilarating, satisfying, challenging and full of positives. There’s nothing wrong with achievement! But if the need to achieve is driven by negatives, it simply can’t end well. What can that end look like? Burnout, exhaustion, loss of purpose and meaning, broken relationships, a sense of hopelessness and pointlessness, health issues, to name a few.
Some negative, usually unconscious, drivers I see in over-achievers who come to me are:
- the unrelenting need to prove themselves. Never feeling like they’re ‘enough’.^
- a sense that everything has to be perfect in order to be ok – including them!
- feeling unimportant, like they don’t matter, and compensating for this with over achievement.
When this client came to me she was suffering from severe depression, anxiety and stress, according to her DASS*, which scored at 35. She hadn’t identified with those words: ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’... She just knew she’d lost her spark and had had enough. She desperately wanted to move forward in her life in a different way.
What she really needed to do was stop. Just stop. And know: “I am enough. I have nothing to prove. It’s not my job to fix everything for everyone and make everything perfect. It’s ok for me to stop and relax.”
We had three sessions together. At the beginning of the third session her DASS was 8. She was back to ‘normal’ in all three areas. When we checked in with each other a month or so later, her DASS was down to 1. She’d had a week during that time where she’d been aware she needed to make certain choices to avoid putting herself under pressure, almost like a wake-up call and reminder of how she’d used to drive herself, and she’d made them! She said to me:
“It’s been an interesting month. Before I would have kept pushing through. Now I’m stopping. I used to feel guilty about asking for help. Now I’m letting go and trusting someone else can do it and not judging them. I even had nurturing self-talk.
The work we’ve done has not only raised my awareness, but allowed me to realise how hard I’ve been pushing myself, bashing myself. Now, I feel no guilt. Before I’d have been calling people and apologizing. I’m not doing that anymore.
I’m just… calm. I feel really good. I feel really calm. Lost that sense of pressure. I think I’ve just avoided burnout. I’m really tired, but it’s good. I’m just letting myself feel tired and not pushing through.
I’m going to try to pull back [from work] even more. I’m not going to work to the detriment of my family and health and relationships anymore.”
There is always a way out. In order to find that way out of sadness, pointlessness, sense of unworthiness, dullness, desperation, you first need to go in. Otherwise, you’re simply applying band aids, one after the other, in varying colours and sizes. You’re meant to enjoy life. You’re meant to have your spark. High achievement doesn’t need to feel like a burden, a pressure.
I highly recommend stopping and making changes before you’re forced to. It’s much easier to avoid burnout than it is to recover from it.
And remember, you don’t have to try to do this alone.
^Check out Episode 1 of the podcast “BEING with Sally Wilson” to hear about a high-achieving concert pianist’s experience of this.
*Depression, Anxiety, Stress Score.