It’s often hard not to feel envious of them – as they ascend the stage to collect another prize, float their start-up company, are promoted a decade ahead of their peers or dominate the music charts or bestseller lists. Over-achievers torment us rather a lot.
But we should, more rightly, combine our envy with a little compassion. It is likely that these gifted souls are paying an oddly elevated price for their extraordinary successes, so much so that – once their full psychological profiles are in view – we should start to feel a bit sorry for the trajectory of their lives.
What distinguishes over-achievers from the simply highly talented or driven is what powers them in their work. They labour principally or primarily not because they uniquely enjoy what they do or have more urgent material demands than the rest of us, but because they are subject to unusually intense internal, psychological pressures. Behind their relentless activity lies an emotional rather than professional burden. It may look as if they simply want to sell more books, accumulate more shares or have their name in lights. But these over-achievers are all the while trying to secure something far more tricky, unusual and unmentioned: they are trying – through their work – to correct an aspect of a troubled emotional past. They are trying to impress a father who felt withholding and severe around them three decades before. They’re hoping their triumphs will compensate a parent they loved for the loss of a sibling in childhood. They are hoping to assuage a feeling of catastrophe they experienced in the deprived chaotic home of their birth.
In other words, over-achievers are trying to solve a range of psychological problems through material or worldly means. This is why their efforts must, in a deep sense, always be doomed to failure – even when it appears to most of the world as if they are succeeding beyond measure.
Because success is the moment when over-achievers are likely to notice the doomed nature of their ambition, it is a particularly troubling and dangerous eventuality. Depression may set in just after the company is sold; the star will fall into a crisis just after they finally gain worldwide recognition. At exactly the point when their work is acclaimed or finds its audience, over-achievers are at risk of severe breakdown. So long as they are merely running, they can forget to notice that their goal is misaligned with their true inner ambition. They must wait for success to reveal the fateful nature of their life’s quest.
This also explains why holidays are a particular trial for over-achievers, for even a few days off can allow emotional insights to break through (amidst the palm trees). No rest is really the optimal state.
The cure for over-achievement involves pausing to address the psychological wounds that made hard work feel like the only defence against intolerable trauma. It means returning to the situations that made achievement feel life sustaining. It means a confrontation with moments of loss, disconnection, lack of love, sadness and humiliation.
The recovering over-achiever should allow themselves to feel compassion for their earlier self, acknowledging how much they wish could have gone differently and grasping how their present so-called successful personality has been shaped as a response to grave wounds. The cure for over-achievement lies in mourning and analysis in an atmosphere of love.
The over-achiever may eventually come to believe that they deserve a place on the earth whether they work or not. They aren’t there just to perform. The greater need is to connect and to understand.
We live in a world very interested in huge achievements and very uninclined to notice the trauma behind them. We are equally not encouraged to note the way in which contentment with modest achievement can be a sign that things have gone very well for someone emotionally. It is evidence of health to have no particular wish to be famous and not to mind too much if one doesn’t have a fortune; to be able to have a so-called ordinary life, to take pleasure in holidays and to place friendship and love at the center of things. We should, on occasion, dare to feel rather sorry for over-achievers – even if that can mean starting to feel sorry for ourselves.