Do you remember getting your first bad grade?
My teacher, Miss Frampton, zigzagged her way around class, handing out graded homework.
A large red “C” glared at me. I immediately grabbed my homework and crammed it behind my notebooks in my desk.
My heart beat 100mph. I felt sick to my stomach, imagining my father’s stern gaze.
I was only 8 years old.
Flash forward to high school. By then, I had firmly tied my worth to achievements: I couldn’t afford to fail.
So, when I struggled with writing an essay, I asked my best friend Nat to write it for me. Which, surprisingly, she did—and she continued completing assignments for me until my guilt crushed me.
Why am I telling you this?
Sharing our story helps others. We’re all doing our best. It’s just that we’re contending with a lot more than we think.
Why it’s hard to stop being an overachiever
You most likely learned from an early age that achieving wins you approval from your parents, teachers and peers. Their praise felt good and motivated you to work harder.
First-generation children like myself feel immense pressure to succeed to appease their families. My parents taught me that survival—ahem, my future—depended on my academic success.
But in all seriousness, my father’s survival did depend on his schooling. As an immigrant who fled Vietnam in the 80s, he arrived in the US with only the clothes on his back and a sandal dangling from his foot. My father quickly enrolled in college to earn an in-demand degree, which led him to work for a respectable company.
Thanks to his perseverance, my brother and I grew up in a comfortable home in a safe neighborhood.
But if you have basic needs taken care of, it’s another story. Ultimately, overachieving acts as a temporary band-aid. Just like any coping mechanism, it protects you from dealing with difficult emotions festering underneath:
- fear of failure, disapproval, looking weak or the future
- feelings of worthlessness: I’m not good enough unless I do xyz
- self-doubt, anxiety and stress
- anger and frustration
Fear pushes you to accomplish more in the short run, but depletes your energy and happiness in the long run.
Instead, take a deep breath. Notice how you feel more often.
Reboot yourself with a grounding technique—then get back into the game.
Enjoy the process more
It’s bright and early. You tick off your first task with a smile.
Hours later, you’re behind schedule. Only 3 tasks done to perfection, 10 more to go. No breaks!
So, you force yourself to speed up. Papers spin in the air. Your eyes flitter from one task to another.
Late evening: you drag yourself out of your office chair, gobble something and collapse into bed.
No celebration. Nor savoring your work.
Just feeling like crap.
Has this ever happened to you?
When you chase external goals like ticking off boxes, good grades and promotions, it can actually hinder your performance. Psychologists call this type of motivation “extrinsic”.
On the other hand, when you do an activity just because you love it or find the challenge exciting, it’s an “intrinsic” motivation.
It’s unfulfilling to engage in activities simply for rewards and to avoid punishment. Because ultimately, tying your happiness and worth to external factors is like trying to grasp a cloud—ephemeral and ever-changing.
“If you set yourself a goal and work toward it… honor and give your fullest attention to the step that you are taking at this moment.
If you then become excessively focused on the goal, perhaps because you are seeking happiness, fulfillment or a more complete sense of self in it, the Now is no longer honored. It becomes reduced to a mere stepping stone to the future, with no intrinsic value….
Your life’s journey is no longer an adventure, just an obsessive need to arrive, to attain, to “make it”. You no longer see or smell the flowers by the wayside either, nor are you aware of the beauty and the miracle of life that unfolds all around you when you are present in the Now.”
—Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
Let go of “no pain, no gain”
I remember strolling near the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris during my junior year abroad.
Classes finished early that day, so I explored the quartier, while nibbling at my ham and cheese baguette sandwich.
I turned the corner of avenue de l’Observatoire. Suddenly, two majestic iron gates welcomed me to a pleasant haven: small circles of friends picnicked, people read novels in garden chairs and lovers lounged on the grass.
What in the…?
I couldn’t believe the sheer number of park-goers—it was a weekday afternoon. Does anyone in Paris work?
Now that I’ve lived in France for 10 years, I can confirm the French do work. But they also cherish downtime because it contributes to their well-being.
Most workers in France—whether you’re an employee or an executive—enjoy lunch for 1.5 hours. And sometimes, your employer even pays for your lunch.
Can you imagine that?
I can relate to Tom Hodgkinson of How to Be Idle, when he worried the business lunch with his French collaborators had gone on too long:
“On voicing my anxieties, my desire to work was roundly dismissed…. They laughed, arguing that there was no hurry, that things would happen all in good time and they justified themselves with the following paradox:
Travailler moins, produire plus. The less you work, the more you produce.”
—Tom Hodgkinson, How to Be Idle
Indeed, downtime actually increases productivity, recharges your batteries and boosts creativity.
So, prioritize free time.
Take a 20-minute walk or nap.
Observe life at a café à la française.
Doing less is ok.
Befriend your inner critic
Imagine having an older sister or brother.
They worry whether or not others respect you. If your boss values your work, if your partner truly loves you.
Your sibling feels responsible for you and will do anything to ensure you feel safe, loved and accepted.
Sometimes, they even abuse you, so that you may correct your behavior and thus gain others’ approval:
- Blaming → It’s your fault.
- Comparing → Why can’t you be like her?
- Setting unrealistic standards → It’s not perfect yet.
- Reminding you of your failures → You never learn, do you?
- Discouraging risks → You’re going to fail anyway.
- Brushing off wins → You were lucky.
- “Shoulding” → You should (not) be/do xyz.
- Insulting → You’re dumb, weak, ugly.
- Shaming → You’re not good enough.
However, they don’t mean to attack you: It’s for your own good. You’ll thank me later.
Your inner critic, that judgmental inner voice, has the same intentions.
It doesn’t matter if that modus operandi sabotages you. They don’t know any other way: It’s better than being rejected, shamed or abandoned.
But wait—there’s hope.
Now that you’ve grown up, you can take care of yourself; you no longer need to huddle under their wings.
So, come out of there.
Have a heart-to-heart talk with your inner critic.
Thank them for taking care of you.
You’ve got it now.
Ask life-changing questions
It’s easy to fall prey to popular images of success.
Like advanced degrees, a prestigious job or a luxurious lifestyle.
There’s nothing wrong with these things. But when we sacrifice our well-being or time with loved ones, we have to ask ourselves, Is it worth it?
Perhaps by asking life-changing questions, our current world of quick profits, material gain and “the fast life” can come to a halt and make way for more love and peace.
I believe every time I shun breaks, stress about my to-do list or feel I must be #1, I’ve fallen into the trap of consumerism.
When that happens, I take a deep breath and contemplate:
- Who am I without my achievements?
- What legacy do I want to leave behind?
- What’s my purpose?
Moreover, dare to ponder the miracle of life, the probability of your being born estimated at one in 400 trillion:
- What is reality?
- Where do thoughts come from?
- Where does the universe end?
“Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.”
—Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
You’re more than your achievements
We all feel the pressure to be and do more.
Let’s cultivate a world where we lift each other up.
Don’t wait for a breaking point.
Claim this moment now.
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness coach on a mission to help people let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading to stop being an overachiever: