The Dark Side To Being A High Achiever That No One Tells You About

“Excuse me, I have to go,” were the last shaky words I remember saying before I got up from my chair and headed in the direction of the door. Except I didn’t make it. Dizzy and confused, a fellow male colleague in the boardroom quickly jumped up and urged me to sit down. I didn’t know what was happening to me. All I remember was that I was experiencing trouble breathing, my heart was beating outside of my chest, and I looked like I had just come back from a 10 km run as beads of sweat ran down my face.

My CEO — the guy who just promoted me to the executive ranks a few weeks earlier — was sitting across from me, staring at me, dumbfounded. He didn’t know how to react.

I was mortified. I was the Vice President of Human Resources, recently promoted, and at the top of my career game. My first thought wasn’t that I may be dying. No, my first thought was, “What will my boss think of me now?”

Within an hour, I was on a stretcher being wheeled out by paramedics. The voices in my head were vicious and unrelenting. What would my colleagues think? Why is this happening to me so soon after getting promoted? They are going to think I’m too weak to handle the big job.

I was convinced that I was having a heart attack. That’s how oblivious I was to the true and most commonplace diagnosis: stress and anxiety. In fact, I was so unwilling to accept that I was working under high pressure conditions that I drove myself to the emergency room three more times, convinced that the doctors were wrong and I was right.

That’s how far my denial went.

The diagnosis of stress and anxiety didn’t do anything to slow me down. Why?

I’m a high achiever. I didn’t want to stop. I revelled in the corporate status as the “go-to highly promotable and successful executive woman.” I loved the attention. The compliments. I was a fan of the saying, “If you want something done, give it to the busiest person.” Oh yeah, that was me. Bragging rights.

A High Achieving Woman. My CEO’s right arm. Irreplaceable.

No, I was a Validation Vampire. My High Achiever DNA and inner lack of confidence became the invisible threads of my suffering.

According to Thomas J. and Sara DeLong in The Paradox of Excellence, “High Achievers are Doers, driven to achieve results, competitive, and addicted to positive feedback. We care deeply about how others perceive them but often ignore positive feedback and obsess over mistakes or criticism. They obsessively compare themselves to others which leads to a chronic sense of insufficiency, false calibrations, and career missteps. High Achievers are guilt ridden. No matter how much they accomplish, it’s never enough.”

In my case, I was all these things on steroids. However, I treated my high achiever status as a badge of honor, even when it was silently killing me, disrupting my family life, and affecting my physical and mental health.

The dark side of the high achiever DNA continues to silently kill women everywhere. The Burnout Epidemic is rampant among women in leadership. The Pandemic has exhausted us. Left unchecked, it’s almost guaranteed that women will face a moment of reckoning, forcing us to come eye to eye with a storm of rather unpleasant truths about how we are working.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a high achiever is a superpower. According to Psychology Today, “High achievers have a strong desire to accomplish something important and gain gratification from success in demanding tasks. They like to be one of the best at what they do and are determined to keep moving.” 

Think of CEOs, athletes, Tom Cruise. Some of the most successful people I know are high achievers. Driven, motivated, experts in their craft. Admirable, really.

In my opinion, it’s the last part, “the desire to keep moving,” that is the true silent killer, especially for women toggling between career, family, parenting, and other caregiving responsibilities.

After coaching numerous super successful high achieving women, I have noticed we have three similar things in common:

·     A harsh inner critic

·     Less confidence in themselves

·     Difficulty asking for help or setting career boundaries

So, what are we high achievers to do? Are we supposed to simply lower our expectations in return for less anxiety? Well, yes and no.

First, acknowledge the dark side of your DNA. This is going to be uncomfortable, but necessary if you are serious about well-being. As an executive coach of highly successful women, I would encourage the following three actions.

1. Ask the tough questions. “What am I risking by continuing to go at this pace?” Or “what beliefs do I have about myself that I need to challenge right now?” Are you obsessively comparing or ruminating on past mistakes? Are you constantly running on the treadmill of excellence despite the harmful pace that leaves you gasping for air? Can you slow your pace from a six-minute mile to seven or eight?

2. Ask for help. There are several different types of support that you can draw on. Therapists can help you resolve deeply rooted trauma that impacts confidence levels. Coaches can help you develop self-awareness and unblock limiting beliefs using skilled questioning. Mentors who have walked similar career paths can perhaps offer alternative solutions to common workplace challenges that arise. Which one is best suited to you? Inquire.

3. Develop a solid morning routine devoted to building your self-image and well-being. The scientific evidence linking morning routines and productivity has become commonplace now. However, I also encourage my clients to spend at least 15 minutes every morning paying attention to the engine at their core – their heart – and envisioning how they want to live their life and how they want to show up for their children, their husband, their career, and their teams. Spending time journaling, writing, meditating, and visualizing how you want to live your life can start slowly shifting the high achiever mindset, so long as it’s consistently practiced. The words and actions you take as a result of embodying a healthy self-image sends a message to your subconscious mind, which over time can dramatically change your pre-programmed wiring.

If I’m being honest, when I look back at my Crucible moment in the boardroom, what I realize now is that achievement is a high. There is nothing quite as adrenalin producing than being promoted and revered by your colleagues, at least not for me. However, that same high became the chains that were keeping me trapped in a vicious cycle of overwork, over care, perfectionism, and debilitating anxiety. Despite that, I kept moving.