Over-achievement, meh.
November 16, 2006 11:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop being an over-achiever?

I think I have something clinical. I've pinned a major source of depression and anxiety in my life: overly zealous effort toward something that'd be awesome for me (or overly zealous effort away from something that'd be bad for me).

I guess I'm an overachiever, or a perfectionist, or whatever you want to call it. And I have no idea on how to stop it.

If I see a job posting that I know I'm qualified for, I drop everything and spend an hour in this fury whipping up my resume together. When really, I'm happy at the job where I'm at. But I'd do it, anyways, just to see what opportunities I may get.

Or if I have an opportunity to move up at my company, like let's say there's a big presentation in front of some higher-ups, then I throw 110% of my life into it.

This behavior killed me in high school and in college. I was constantly sick because of how hard I'd work to achieve top rankings in everything.

If I make a mistake, I'll spend an inordinate amount of time berating myself, so as to make sure I never ever make the same mistake again.

The moment the spark happens, I try to talk myself out of it. But the cost-benefits always seem to tip in the favor of the extra effort, that no amount of rationalization alleviates the pressure.

Should I seek counselling? Do I need medication? Like I've said, talking myself down seems to not work.

Maybe I should move somewhere that's not so success oriented. Who knows. I'll take all sorts of advice.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I dunno if this is any good, but there is a new book called "Goal Free Living" I've had an interview with the author open that I've been meaning to read for a few weeks (which probably suggests I'm not the target audience).
posted by Good Brain at 12:01 PM on November 16, 2006

Stop telling yourself that your value as a human being relates to what you achieve. Draw up a chart with the belief that your value as a human is related to your achievement. Then assign a number from 1-100 to your belief in that. Beneath that draw two columns, one for advantages of believing that and one for disadvantages of believing that. When done, assign a 1-100 value to whether it is to your advantage to believe that your value as a human is related to your achievement. Repeat as necessary. Get a therapist.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:10 PM on November 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would suggest reading "The Paradox of Choice" [amazon] by Barry Schwartz. You are describing something a little different, but I think it arises out of the same attitudes about how different people approach decisions and choices that the book addresses.
posted by misterbrandt at 12:12 PM on November 16, 2006

soto zen meditation might help. if you apply your acheivement attitude to meditation, you'll drive yourself crazy. if you meditate enough, i bet you'll begin to see that this attitude is pretty pointless and it will fall away.

or you could start smoking pot.
posted by milarepa at 12:13 PM on November 16, 2006

Mary Jane
posted by SBMike at 12:13 PM on November 16, 2006

I understand that this behavior puts you in a bit of a stressful cycle, but I don't know if it's something you need to correct.

I'm reminded of a quote from Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver. In the very first chapter, a young Ben Franklin is explaining to Enoch the Red why he is skipping school and avoiding getting more ahead of his fellow students than he already is. Enoch counsels the boy thusly:

"If you are ahead, the correct this is to get used to it - not to make yourself an imbecile. Come, you belong in school."

Not to suggest that you intend to make yourself an imbecile, mind you. But you may come to feel less stress and consternation if you come to view your drive and ambition as gifts.
posted by EatTheWeek at 12:31 PM on November 16, 2006

The moment the spark happens, I try to talk myself out of it.

You've got to hold it in your lungs longer, George.
posted by prostyle at 12:45 PM on November 16, 2006

I have the exact opposite problem and I would trade with you in a heartbeat. Not a solution, I realize, but can you see the positive side of this? You are willing to bust your ass for goals. This is means you can set your mind to anything you want to do and accomplish it. Perhaps you just haven't yet found the one thing that will let you behave like this WITHOUT feeling bad or overwhelmed. Maybe it is not the overachieving itself but the channeling of the overachieving energy down paths you are really interested in that is the problem. Maybe take some time to examine your goals?
posted by spicynuts at 12:57 PM on November 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I wish I had your problem.
Except for berating yourself, the drive to put effort into your own success doesn't seem like a bad thing. I guess the issue is really whether you are getting the returns on your investment, so to speak - do you feel good about yourself when something does come through?
See, I berate myself constantly for what I haven't accomplished, but don't seem to have the neurotic need to actually get work done, so spend too much time bemoaning failures and then wasting time. But when I do finish something, it honestly seems worth it to me - I just wish I could push myself harder to actually get there sooner.

If you push yourself but only cause stress, not satisfaction, then perhaps you need to evaluate your long term goals more closely. Instead of letting random impulses direct all that extra energy, give serious consideration to what you want to do with your life, and try to focus your "zealous effort" toward the fulfillment of a chosen dream. Give honest thought to why you want to achieve that goal, though - don't choose something because it sounds good / other people like it / why not/ etc. Choose your path deliberately, and if you realize that the best path is to live alone in a cabin in the woods, or whatever, then set that goal deliberately too. But don't squash desires just because they seem complicated. Try to figure out why you have them and how you can best make use of them - blind repression and blind indulgence are both ultimately useless because you will still have no understanding of the internal cause and long-term story that these desires are drawn from.
posted by mdn at 1:01 PM on November 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

Along the lines of some other answers, instead of a wholesale change of who you are, you should try to find a goal that's worth that level of effort and energy. Find something you're passionate about, or anxious to learn about, and channel your achievement ethic into that.
posted by pdb at 1:19 PM on November 16, 2006

I have the opposite problem as well... in fact, right now I'm on metafilter when I should be doing something else that would help me get ahead (and it's already overdue).

If you really want to change this though, maybe try to talk yourself out of it by reminding yourself that in the future, these things aren't really going to matter. Chances are, you won't remember them, and no one else will either. I know that I spent a lot of high school and earlier in college stressed about things that I "needed to do", but I didn't. I don't remember what these things are now. Take a look at your goals... what YOU yourself want to do and achieve in life, and only allow yourself to follow through with these goals. No one, not even yourself, is going to remember in a few years/weeks/days, that you didn't get that position, or apply for it, or that you messed up a teensy bit in a presentation. Remind yourself of the larger scale of your life, and the tiny effect that these decisions make on it. Day to day things don't really matter that much...

As I said before, I have the opposite problem, and these are the types of things that I tell myself when I'm sure I'm going to do horribly on my exams, or paper. It gets so bad though... to the point where I think that nothing really matters. I wish I had your problem, without the stress!!

It also sounds like you might also be worried about not measuring up to people around you. Again, take some time to examine yourself and make a list of the things that you decide are important to you. If you have a strong sense of what you want, and what you need to do to get there, it's harder for other people to influence you into thinking that what they have is what you want. I do this all the time as well, I hear what degrees people are getting, or the internships that they have, and I suddenly dislike what I'm doing. But then I remind myself that I really enjoy my major, and I'm excited about the opportunities that it will give me in the future. There are a thousand ways that your life can go... but that doesn't mean that you have to throw yourself down every potential path. You won't really get anywhere that way! Concentrate on your own life, and what's important to you.
posted by friendlyfire at 1:29 PM on November 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

How about channeling your perfectionism toward different ends? Could you redefine 'achievement' in a way that gives you a better balance in life?

For example, you could decide that being in good health is an important goal of yours. You could decide that to achieve your goal of good health will require, for example, X hours of sleep consistently each night (maybe even write it up as a contract with yourself, and sign it). Therefore you can't stay late at work, because then you couldn't reach your health goal.

If you really want to be perfectionistic about it, you could think about where you want to be in, say, 5 years - including work, hobbies, family, etc. A goal could be "having several close friends whom I see regularly", and you could work towards that now by planning to get together with Jane once a month. [I don't mean to imply that you don't have close friends - just trying to think of an example of a non-work goal.]

Longer-term, therapy might help. I have struggled with perfectionism. For me it is very helpful to realize how workaholism and overachievement are valued in my family, and to see the consequences of that value system. I can choose to have different values. Thinking "I don't want to wind up like my dad" is a big motivator for me.
posted by medusa at 1:48 PM on November 16, 2006

What Medusa said.

But careful not to pressure yourself too much on those goals, i.e. make sure one of your goals is to reduce the amount of pressure you put on yourself to get everything right.

Think of it as being the best human being you can be, and having the best, most pleasant and rewarding time on earth you can have - and really experiencing what it is to be a person, as many facets as you can of it, including the lazing around and making mistakes.

Trying to see life as a fun game you're playing can help too.
posted by lorrer at 3:44 PM on November 16, 2006

I second SBMike and others regarding the benefits of marijuana in your situation. I imagine you would be able to afford some really quality bud, too. Getting high will make it easier for you to just relax - watch more television, play computer games, and surf the Internet in a less focused and goal-driven way.

Good luck, friend. If you need any further help in this regard, email is in my profile.
posted by Brave New Meatbomb at 3:58 PM on November 16, 2006

So now you're trying to over achieve at not over achieving?

Relax. Be slack. Spend lots of time on the net at work. Take holidays with drop outs and enjoy yourself. Find out what people who are slack enjoy.

MJ may also help.

And you may find that you like being an over achiever. If so, good for you.

It's all good.
posted by sien at 4:26 PM on November 16, 2006

So you're out of college. How long out of college? From your question, we can't assume anything. I'll say this, though: if you are just recently out of college, your feelings make a lot of sense. It's fairly natural at this point (I'm there, too) to experience these feelings of social comparison, feelings that say "I'm not doing enough fast enough. There are kids half my age headlining magazine covers! What the hell am I doing with my life?" This is the stuff the "quarterlife crisis" is made of.

And regardless of your age, if you're living in a high-rent area or in the same area you lived in during college, that will tend to exacerbate the problem. In a place like that, you're likely surrounded by high-achieving people who have a striving mentality. You've all spent your whole lives being (or attempting to be) the best. You're used to that. But it doesn't have to be that way. (It didn't have to be that way while you were getting your education, either, but try telling yourself that four or eight or 20 years ago.)

Moving away from somewhere like that and finding a place to live that isn't so success- and status-driven could be a good idea. Similarly, if you're living in NYC, LA, or someplace like that, that could be a lot of your problem right there—social comparison is in the air there.

But know this: Moving won't change your personality and your focus in life. You have to change your own perspective on things. Ideally, you should hope to get to a point where you don't care what your life looks like to other people.

Do you have people around you who are continually asking you what you're doing next, what your plans are, where you're going in life? People who look at whatever your job is, regardless of how good it is and how much you enjoy it, and assume you should want to be doing better? Do you ask yourself questions like that? That could also be your problem.

Here's what I've learned in the past six months since graduation: People who can't seem to find anything to ask you about except what you're doing (for a living, for your vacation, for the next five years of your life) and where you're going in life (up, up, up, right?) are usually projecting their own insecurities upon you. (Or else they lack social graces and conversation skills.)

I've gotten this question a million times: "So what are you doing now?" This one half a million: "So what are you going to do next year?" It's that performative, need-to-show-the-world mindset we get caught in. In my case, even on my year off I'm continually beating myself up for not accomplishing things (even as I thwart the very idea of a year off by accomplishing a lot).

Let me pose a question to you: Who's to say you're not very comfortable with your rent-controlled chunk of real-estate? Do you assume that you should want better? Do others assume you should want better? Do you really want better?

Perhaps you tell yourself (and others), "I do want to get out of here." Here being your comfortable apartment, your good job, your old friends. If everyone is telling you to get out, intimating that they're not comfortable staying where they are, it's easy to internalize that message.

I've come to realize that the desire to leave a comfortable space if often foisted upon us by others. Sometimes these are well-meaning others, and sometimes they're blithely unconscious others. Sometimes the only person foisting these desires upon you is yourself. Whatever the case, you would do well to recognize the underlying motivations of those calling you to arms. So much of what others tell us is designed to reinforce their own goals, their own hopes of surpassing a quotidian existence. So ask yourself: what do you truly want?

Perhaps you believe (and perhaps rightly so) that you're destined for greatness. Unless something happens to reorder your priorities in life, you'll never be content to achieve something less than greatness.

In my case, when I meditate (as we all sometimes do) upon fame and greatness, I entertain the hope that if and when I become famous, everyone around me will also join my merry society of fame, accompanying me to the highest echelons in pursuit of greatness. There are many reasons for such a desire—one wants to achieve fame, but keep the same comfortable friendships, the same square of carpet to retreat to at night. One wants to look around and see prom-time friends and lovers bedecked ever more gaily around them in the never-never land that is fame, 20 years out.

And it makes us feel better to think that so very little needs to change for us to get our "big break." It could be in this job—here!—or this connection—there! And so there are reasons we foist our fantasies of progress upon those we purport to care about, including ourselves, and push for progress, dammit!

"I care about myself," you think, "and thus it's only natural to want to be the best possible widget-maker/inventor/artist/salesman/broker there is."

That makes sense. There are so often unconscious motives underlying our exhortations to ourselves and others regarding the pursuit of greatness. But the mere presence of those motives doesn't determine what is right for us.

Your instincts may be correct—if you stay where you are, you may stagnate and never achieve your God-given potential. But you need to make sure that your imperatives are your own. Others' imperatives should be but mere suggestion to you.

You can go ahead and push yourself to "get the hell out of Dodge, while you still can!" But think about why you want to. Realize that this upward-trending desire may be more a reflection of your jumpy, worried-scared preoccupations than some kind of innate, destined rise to greatness. Realize that not everyone "makes it" by the time they're 30. Realize that you can take your time.

Introspect and think about these matters.

Then, if you're happy, stay a while. Let things develop.

If you're truly unhappy, on the other hand, go ahead and get the hell out of Dodge, whatever that means for you.
posted by limeonaire at 5:18 PM on November 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

My advice: define for yourself when it is acceptable to behave in such a manor.

What I'm trying to communicate is that the behavior you are describing is completely normal (if not required) for highly successful people. Obsessive-compulsive over-achieving is OK, in other words, if it is limited to just a part of your life. For example, if you are only like this with regard to your career, then accept it, embrace, remember that it sets up apart, that the people you look up to probably share it (read "Playing for Keeps", a bio on Michael Jordan that details how obsessive he was, or consider that Jeffrey Katzenberg refused to take a single day off for the vast majority of his career).

That said, if you are like this in every aspect of your life, if you can't open your fridge without feeling the uncontrollable need to suddenly get it cleaner than any fridge in the history of mankind, then you have a pretty serious OCD problem, which will ultimately cancel out the success you might otherwise achieve career-wise. In other words, OCD is benefical when it is focused on a single point, and is completely destructive when it isn't.

Finally, ask yourself if, from a career standpoint, has this behavior gotten you where you want to be? If so, it's working.
posted by JPowers at 12:38 AM on November 21, 2006

Also, in regards to the advice to consider Zen mediation, it is vital that you understand that taking up Zen is, by design, supposed to be a completely destructive process. If you've never meditated before, meditation will, at first, cause way more harm than good, since it is (once again, by design) such a mind fuck that aims at breaking down every piece of knowledge you have about who you are, what you are, why you're here, etc. Of course, after a few years (not months, sometimes decades), you will have something very special: the ability to let go and erase your mind when it gets too full. Again though, this is a skill that is very hard to achieve (I'm very far from satori, but have made enough process that Zen quiets my mind when I need it to).

A Quiet Mind is a great place to start getting into Zen. I suggest going back to the first podcast and working you're way up from there.
posted by JPowers at 12:48 AM on November 21, 2006

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