Overachieving is comprised of emotional urges, habits, and so much lost time. I was constantly consumed by the urge to achieve, while outwardly it appeared like I was thriving. Ultimately the internal costs far outweighed any of my successes.
How My Overachieving Began
My very first achieving memory is at the age of 6. On summer afternoons we would go to a local swimming pool. My father would throw a coin into the deep end of the pool, and I would swim like a fish to get it.
When I was a child the deep end of a pool was usually 10 or 12 feet. I would inhale a very deep breath before diving in, swimming very fast to make it to the bottom of the pool, pick up the coin, and begin my upward ascent. 10 feet was deep for my 6 year old body, so I would swim as quickly as my little arms and legs could handle. My body moved frantically because I needed oxygen. On the way up it felt like I was going to explode. I was out of air and almost back at the top. The minute I hit air, I would gasp for breath feeling like I had just made it in time. Ah then relief floated through my body.
My dad would cheer and laugh. He got such a kick out my pool achievements. And so I did these games with him repeatedly. His joy in watching me and my relief was infectious. Alas, the seeds of achieving were laid deep within me.
From Underachieving to Tasting Success
Growing up, my brother was the achiever. He was the football star and the straight A student, and I was the underachiever, rebelling against his success. I was rebelliously complacent with being average in school and in life.
Fast-forward through these 15 developmental 'average years', to my 20s when my own overachieving started to flourish. At this point; I had started college and began to thrive. It was my first taste of academic success and relationship success with my family, and it felt great. More precisely, it felt wonderful to feel how proud they were of my achievements and to relish in them together.
It was very reminiscent of the coins at the bottom of the pool. I would work so hard getting the coin (achieving a goal), that I felt like I was almost out of breath (exhausted). At that moment I would reach the surface of the water, and I could finally breath again (relief).
I was also a part of a community of peers who also showered me with praise. All priming me for an overachieving lifestyle. If a little is good then a lot must be great, right?
I loved this taste of success, I could not get enough of it. It was like a drug providing rewards for all of my hard work -- like picking up the coins at the bottom of the deep end and hearing my father cheering me on. Yet this time it was inside my head.
Next Stop, Perfectionism
I am pretty sure overachieving is a genetic Holmes trait that took time to develop in me. In college I was an above average achiever but I was not compulsive just yet. This was when my perfectionism started to take root inside of me.
I went from average to trying to be perfect in all areas of my life. In my personal life I would mentally review mistakes in relationships, and discuss these mistakes with friends and therapists to rectify them and ultimately make changes. I took this awareness building very seriously and my anxiety fed on these perfectionistic habits of "reviewing mistakes".
It took time for these habits to go from thriving to draining. It was not until I graduated college with my master's degree that I became over-consumed by the compulsivity of overachieving and perfectionism.
My therapy sessions had to be perfect or I would mentally review mistakes to correct them the next time. The mental review was done obsessively and was a nonstop production in my head daily. It affected my sleep and woke me up in the middle of the night. I was terrified that the mistake police were coming to get me. SMH.
The flipside was that I was becoming a better and better therapist. My clients were getting better, I was pursuing more and more education on helpful techniques, and my practice was thriving. Success was occurring for me through compulsive reflection and review, how else could success be achieved?
During the height of it, I thought it was a great time to start bike racing to manage my stress. Why not? I was overworked and over-worried, so why not over-exercise. LOL...it actually made perfect sense in my overachiever mind.
So began my obsessive pattern of exercise. It was not how much I exercised but the internal review and expectations I placed on this "stress reliever". I continued this exhausting pattern of work and what I considered play until I could not. Thereupon, my body literally tapped out.
At this point the consequences of my way of living started to affect my sleep and my health, which is the only reason I stopped. If my body would have allowed it, I would have continued into rigid insanity.
I was successful, so what could be wrong with that?
This type of success comes with a cost to relationships, health issues, causes intense anxiety and lots of stress. But I was living the American dream? Success times 1000, or so we are told and see all over social media.
During my overachiever period, I often felt like that kid waiting to catch my breath once I got to the surface of the pool. Task after task I kept waiting, the whole time feeling like I was about to explode.
Ergo, my journey through this "healthy" foe. I am not saying it was easy because it wasn't nor isn't. I had to listen to hours and hours of books on the topic to break through my hard head. I will blame this trait on my father. We Holmes' struggle with changing our minds, especially when we think we are right.
The payoff is that, today, my anxiety is almost completely gone. I do not live in fear of the imperfection police knocking on my door or the next catastrophe that will occur if my achievement is not met with perfection.
Self-Compassion, Patience, and Laughter
There is plenty of room in the world for mistakes without consequences. Mistakes that are supported by self-compassion. Self- compassion has replaced the perfection god that I lived by. I am no longer living in the terror of the next massive fallout.
When we are stuck in this pattern it's hard to even see the internal workings of compulsive behavior because the achievements bring you to the next goal. So the pattern continues, but the cost is relationships, time wasted on worrying, and a consumed mind.
I think I am a better person now. I am so grateful that my body tapped out and forced me to change. Today my relationships are more important than my goals, in actions and in values. Maintaining these behaviors takes time, I am a continual work in progress. I am happy that I can balance my goals with my overall wellbeing. Progress is a gradual process comprised of self-compassion, patience, and lots of laughter.
Today I know that I am enough even if I don't make it to the bottom of the pool. I can choose to just swim instead of exhausting myself through repeated actions. Today my relationships can be built and enriched on play and being.
Therapy and Overachieving
It's so inspiring to watch my clients learn to hold their own (achieving) horses and to see the way they move through these destructive emotional urges disguised as healthy choices.
Change is fickle especially when the world, peers, and family reinforce the choices that are eroding your wellbeing. If you notice yourself or your child in this pattern, my office is a compassionate place for change to begin. Support is essential to address a pervasive, overachieving pattern. Remember -- if the most hard-headed person (me) can change, anyone can 😀!