Tips for Type-As: How to Recover from an Overachiever Childhood
Most Type-A, high-achieving adults have put in solid time as striving, overachieving kids.
If you were a straight-As, every-extracurricular-activity, all-the-AP-classes kind of person growing up, you likely started out as someone who needed to be challenged because your intellect and curiosity demanded it.
The problem with school is that it reinforces achievement, not intellect and curiosity, and if you're not careful, your self-worth can get too tied up in accomplishments. You start collecting gold stars as a kid because it feels really good to be praised.
Then adulthood hits, and adulthood is hard for overachiever kids.
The gold stars of adulthood, like advanced degrees, high-prestige jobs, and status-oriented lifestyles, are much harder to come by than straight-As and trophies. And adulthood's gold stars often come with very dangerous side effects, like massive student loan debt, overwhelming stress, and a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, alienation, and emptiness.
Those last three - the really hard feelings - are probably happening because you don't know that you can be okay and you are worthy of love even if you don't achieve, and the resulting anxious perfectionism can make it next to impossible to derive any satisfaction from your success. It can also make it really hard to build your life based on your values, instead of other people's values.
Nobody passes out gold stars for the stuff that actually matters, like self-respect and healthy relationships with other people.
So how do you shift your mentality and stop reaching for gold stars that don't make you happy? Here are a few things to think about.
Stop comparing yourself to other people.
Compare and despair, right? If you're finding yourself scrolling through Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., and feeling deficient, stop. Stop scrolling. Turn off the notifications, uninstall the applications from your phone. Don't look - it's all a mirage and it's designed to make you feel bad about yourself.
That guy who just closed a multi-million dollar round of funding isn't putting out press releases about his upcoming divorce. The woman with the picture-perfect family doesn't post photos of her 3 a.m. panic attack. Even in this age, in which many people are more candid about their mental health struggles, no one tells the whole story in a public forum, especially while they're still in the thick of it. Don't compare your inner state to other people's resumes and digital photo albums - it's inaccurate and unfair.
Connect with other humans. In person. On a regular basis.
Find safe people with whom you can be vulnerable. This means people you can cry around, and who will let you see them cry, too. You should have two or three of these people in your life. You should see one of them every week or so. You should talk about things besides work; if you have trouble with this, do things in your life besides work.
It's okay if one of these people is a therapist. It's okay if you have to join a hiking group or a gym or some other place where there are people just to meet friends because you've isolated yourself in your career too much. Get started on this.
Connect with yourself. Engage in meaningful activities. Resist gold stars.
Spend time with yourself. Read Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and do some creative stuff that you don't show anyone. Grow a garden. Secretly learn how to play the guitar. Meditate but don't use one of those tracking apps. Go for a run without music or GPS and just notice how good it feels. Volunteer somewhere. Take an improv class because it's fun, even if (especially if) you're terrible at it.
The point is to carve out some time in your life that's not dedicated to achieving stuff. You usually can't do that at work, but you can learn how to be okay with not being a superstar in every other moment and context of your life. Your mental health is relying on you to be okay with yourself even when you're not perfect.
If it's hard to do any of the things above, or if you're doing them and you're still feeling empty and alone, therapy can help you. With a therapist, you can pinpoint the messages you've been telling yourself since your early overachiever years. Maybe the message is "I don't deserve love unless I achieve ______" but filling in the blank is a trap because somehow the blank can never stay filled.
Overachievers often think and feel some variation of "I'm not good enough." In therapy you can learn to recognize when you're operating from this "not good enough" place and stop falling into the trap. Over time, the compassionate care you get from your therapist can help you start to connect to yourself and accept yourself as good enough, just as you are. And with a little more time, you can internalize "I am good enough" and give that to yourself.
The good thing about being an overachiever is that you know you can do hard things. You can do this, too. But it's okay to need a little help to get there.
Sepideh Saremi, LCSW is a psychotherapist, coach, and the founder of Run Walk Talk, a method of mental health treatment that helps overachievers and entrepreneurs by combining talk therapy with walking/running. She has an office in Redondo Beach, CA, and you can call her at 424-270-5427 or reach out here to learn what it would be like to work with her.