On “overachieving”

This is a snippet of a conversation I had with a client a few months ago.

See how much of this feels true for you. X feels out of control, so instead of telling yourself, “Wow, X feels out of control” and acknowledging how powerless you feel right now, you’re trying to get everything right, but it’s impossible because of everything happening at the same time.

And, instead of sitting down and crying because you’re overwhelmed, or asking for help, or saying it’s too much, or saying no, or taking a pause, you’re focusing all of your energy on the one thing that does feel good and right (your work) and when that’s not perfect you’re snapping at everyone and feeling bad about yourself for doing it.

She laughed out loud and we shared a moment.

Overachieving is a beast we both intimately know. Unlike most addictions, overachieving tends to yield positive outcomes.

It’s like being a dog that can’t stop barking because it’s a self-rewarding behavior and we continue behaviors that are rewarded. We DO, and we get a gold star. We do MORE and get more gold stars. Hooray for gold stars! We LOVE knowing how well people think we are doing!

We produce like little machines and we receive all this delicious external validation. It feels like all the extra effort is worth it, and if the effort is worth it, we must therefore, be worth it. The achieve-reward cycle becomes a compulsion, earning validation, praise and elevated status … before it leads to burnout.

I don’t wear “overachiever” as a badge of honor; being labeled as one makes me feel misunderstood.

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A new friend heard about my book and grilled me about it.

“But there’s no such thing as overachieving,” she insisted, “you can only achieve. Anything else is, well, redundant.”

I KNOW! I TOTALLY GET IT!

I wrote half a book about it. (The other half is about discovering joy.)

For most of my life, I believed I had to do more to be okay.

Just to be okay. Normal. Good enough.

One day, without realizing it, “overachiever” had become my identity. Without all the gold stars, I didn’t think I mattered.

Our culture LOVES overachievers and doesn’t consider the downsides.

The shame of overachieving comes when I realize I simply cannot do all I have committed to doing. I feel responsible for letting people down. No matter how much I achieve, the bar is set so high I am destined to disappoint. I am empty and depleted instead of full and accomplished.

Do you know how confusing this is?

I start to believe that if I cannot be and do all the things, I AM bad, unworthy and unlovable. I spiral into doubting everything about myself. Shame is a deep, deep well that bottoms out in depression. Depression SUCKS!

Even after watching Brené Brown’s illuminating TED talks (listening to shame, and the power of vulnerability), I had no personal concept of shame (likely because I had convinced myself I was over here being awesome … except for the times that I felt like a terrible human and not worthy of existing on this planet without having to earn my spot on the team…but again, I didn’t talk about that).

The good is thrown out with the bad, negative self-judgments fly every which way in a tornado of rotten garbage strewn around in my thoughts.

It’s not pretty.

Those were the thoughts I kept inside until I landed on a therapist’s couch to deal with childhood trauma, PTSD and C-PTSD. In therapy, I learned the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt=I did a bad thing. Shame=I am a bad thing.

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We need better language for this.

Brené Brown‘s glorious “The Gifts of Imperfection” turns that word on its heels.

Perfection/imperfection. Easy.

What have we got?

Overachiever/average? Overachiever/normal? Overachiever/mediocre?

Ugh.

There’s Got to Be a Better WORD.

Combatting the addiction of overachieving is not a permission slip or an endorsement of mediocre.

You know those commercials about just ok isn’t good enough? I don’t want my tumor removed by an ok surgeon, nor do I want my sushi prepared by someone who is ok with food safety.

Excellence has a place.

Overachievers (and all humans) need to set limits and boundaries.

Underneath the control issues, there is something really special about people like us who seek mastery and create beauty. We are insatiably curious, incredibly competent and deeply driven.

I know it’s not just me. I built a business inspired by us. I am proud of us. I LOVE us!

What I tried to explain to my new friend is that the “overachiever’s guide” part of my book’s title is meant tongue-in-cheek, as is the now available companion journal “The Overachiever’s Guidebook.”

IT IS NOT AN INSTRUCTION BOOK ON HOW TO PERPETUALLY BURN OUT!

It is a self-guided digital download offering directed inquiries to help you discover your joy using the exercises I write about throughout my book. One of my first readers described it as …

INDULGENT AND FUN!

My heroine’s journey in There’s Got to Be a Better Way is not about doing more, nor, quite frankly, is it about doing less.

It’s about doing what’s right, and what comes from guiding myself by a sense of purpose, cultivated self-awareness, and trusting my intuition.

When I am guided by my own light, my life is different.

On the days I write, I am consumed and in the flow. I take everything off my plate that I can, which includes not scheduling a service appointment to fix my dishwasher “because I’m going to be home anyway,” and it will likely involve dinner delivered or something very simple if I’m cooking.

(My family reminds me that every meal I make does not have to be unique and spectacular.)

I will not be responding to every text when I see a badge on my phone nor will I be looking at my email to see who has responded to what and what I need to do next thinking I need to respond immediately.

I write so much about this because I think it’s helpful to know that I have made countless errors in judgment and I’m gently and continually on a path towards improvement. For all the times I ignore or crash through my feelings instead of slowing down to check in with myself, I know one way or another, I will end up in a heap of tissues and tears.

I am learning to question how I habitually hit the gas at emotional yellow lights instead of pausing to consider whether I should stop or go.

Usually, if I slow down to the speed of my unique GPS, the answer is no, not now, or no, and of course you don’t have to do it at all.

You don’t have to figure it all out and you really don’t have to do all the things – especially not all at once.

(Believe me, I’ve tried.)

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