Strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and purpose

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Starting a new year is especially impactful for people described as ‘overachievers’.  I work closely with young influencers in the tech community of San Francisco, their struggles are as unique as their accomplishments.  From completing their own annual ‘Year in Review’ life progress report (yes that really is a thing) to calculating their financial growth trajectory against the top 1% of earners, they are quick to succeed at what they set out to do.  Most are well under 35, have founded and successfully run and/or profitably sold a company, and are already making more money than their parents.  Nothing to frown at, right?  Yet if this describes you, you’re probably thinking ‘meh, so has almost everyone else I know.’  It’s no easy feat to be impressive in the Bay Area.

Overachievers are known for their willingness to tackle new challenges, push themselves beyond their comfort zone in order to get ahead of their peers, and are highly effective at solving problems.  Yet high achieving people also tend to privately wonder “Am I the only one who has a hard time relaxing and enjoying myself?  Why can’t I stop worrying about falling behind in life?”  Overachievers invest much of their time investigating what ‘the right’ choices are, and can struggle with making definitive decisions out of fear of making ‘the wrong’ choice.  Committing to a specific career direction, choosing a spouse, or deciding which city to settle down in can all be paralyzing decisions for overachievers.  The painstaking (not to mention endless) deliberation of an overachiever can lead to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction, loss of authentic purpose, and ultimately, a barrier to enjoying the outcomes they’ve worked so hard to attain.

 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is especially effective at exposing and disrupting ineffective thinking styles that can paralyze people’s decision making and lead to feelings of chronic anxiety, emptiness and discontent

CBT-based strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and authentic purpose:

Redefine Happiness.  Consider how often you think “I’ll be so happy when…or “I can’t wait until…” Stop placing a conditional clause on happiness, it prevents you from valuing your current circumstances as worthy of genuine satisfaction.  Ironically, this thinking style begins as way to sustain motivation and increase tolerance for challenging periods in life.  “I’ll be so happy when I finish this damn Ph.D.” (guilty as charged)  There’s nothing wrong with expecting to feel great once something difficult is over or a life milestone has been met.

  • The Stumbling Block:  When this ‘imagined future’ gets placed so far up on a pedestal that it diminishes your current circumstances, and prevents you from investing in present-day opportunities for satisfaction and joy.
  • The Faulty Logic: “If I let myself be happy with where I am right now, I’ll lose motivation to work hard, and I’ll stop striving for that next level of achievement.”  FALSE.  Work ethic is not driven by avoiding happiness.  You aren’t doing yourself a favor by adopting an attitude of ‘my current life isn’t good enough, and I shouldn’t indulge in pleasure, lest I become complacent’.  Nor does any particular achievement guarantee happiness.
  • The Solution:  Keep your happiness barometer focused on the here and now.  Allow yourself to experience real pleasure and contentment today, it will be the positive fuel that will restore and strengthen you for all your future endeavors.  What if you aren’t sure what makes you genuinely happy?  Instead of measuring every person, activity or experience as an opportunity to advance your station in life, start by asking yourself “Was that fun?”

“If you’re happy, that’s probably the most important thing. Everyone probably has their own definition of success, for me it’s happiness. Do I enjoy what I’m doing? Do I enjoy the people I’m with? Do I enjoy my life?”  Michael Dell, Entrepreneur and Founder of Dell

Redefine Failure.  Consider how often you label a situation or outcome in your life a ‘failure’. Many overachievers are quick to discount and devalue something that didn’t go exactly according to plan.  Part of how people successfully achieve goals is by creating highly specific plans with measurable outcomes.  However, overachievers are prone to self-punitive rumination when things don’t turn out precisely as planned, which leads to pervasive feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

  • The Stumbling Block:  Choosing to view something as a ‘failure’ blinds you to the value it can contribute to your life.  Tying your sense of worth to quantifiable ‘wins’ and ‘failures’ robs you of the chance to be a whole person, whose contributions and very existence is valuable beyond achievement.
  • The Faulty Logic:  “If something didn’t turn out how I wanted, it should be considered a fail.  I wasted valuable time and now I’m behind with my life plan.  This failure tarnishes me, and now I’m not as valuable as other people because of it.”
  • The Solution:  Practice finding (and believing) in silver linings.  In every outcome and life experience there is opportunity to learn and grow in profitable ways.  Finding out what problem solving strategies and solutions don’t work and why, developing newfound courage, building emotional strength, practicing patience, gaining insights about how people and groups think and behave, increasing your ability to offer encouragement and compassion, uncovering resilience, experiencing autonomy and teamwork in new circumstances, the list is endless!  The point is, the most successful, well-rounded people derive their critical personal development from all sorts of experiences and are better for it.  Do not short-change yourself by writing off even your worst outcomes as worthless.  Moreover, the value of your life cannot be quantified by successful achievement alone.

Success does not Guarantee Love.  This is a big one. Huge actually.  Many overachievers learned early in their life they are more likely to receive praise for their successes, which feels good- especially when it comes from influential people like parents or primary caregivers.  Alice Miller wrote about this over 30 years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child.  Being singled out for winning can make us feel special and desirable, increasing our awareness of social status.  Criticism for not achieving can feel rejecting and painful and can lower our sense of self-worth.  Over time, overachievers learn to associate social approval, love, admiration, inclusion, and even intimacy.as being dependent on one’s success.  It’s not that seeking social connections through common interests, values or achievements is misguided.  But relying on social status to serve as the most critical criteria for building friendships or finding a romantic partner can result in relationships that never feel good enough or genuinely fulfilling.

  • The Stumbling Block:   When we use our own version of ‘social status’ (prestigious academic or career achievements, artistic talent, wealth, power, socially recognized intellectual or physical superiority) as the primary focus for building our social circle or selecting a romantic partner, we can lose sight of the most important factors that make relationships feel good and lead to lasting love, happiness and intimacy.  We run the risk of developing relationships that feel inauthentic and insecure.
  • The Faulty Logic:  “My own relative success has led me win approval and special treatment from others.  I’ve also learned to avoid painful criticism and negative judgment by demonstrating superior abilities compared to others.  If I don’t choose someone whom matches or bolsters my success, I won’t feel genuinely good about myself or them.  I can’t really love someone who doesn’t measure up to my expectations for success. 
  • The Solution:  Building opportunities for growth through relationships is a healthy, if not critical part of one’s personal development.  However, overachievers can place a high degree of pressure on themselves to select their social circle strategically, or risk failure in life.  Many will point out quotes from high achieving leaders that suggest all social opportunities should be leveraged to boost one’s personal success.  Business philosopher Jim Rohn “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with” or Michael Dell, Founder of Dell “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.”  While this advice has merit, it can be misleading if taken out of context.  It’s understandable to admire and be drawn towards people who show potential to uplift and improve us, but friendship and romance can’t survive without tenets like mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, respect, genuine affection and good will for one another, reciprocal generosity, and willingness to compromise in order to overcome challenges or disagreements.

Further, overachievers can sometimes fail to recognize or appreciate opportunities to learn from people whose personality strengths and achievements contrast with their own.  Overachievers tend to want to find a spouse who ‘has it all’ which often ends up sounding like an ‘idealized and improved’ version of themselves.  Instead, consider what personality styles are complimentary to your own.  Keep in mind people can be ‘Type A’ at work, but ‘Type B’ in social and romantic relationships, or vice versa.  Who you work well with at the office or studio may or may not be who you are best suited for romantically.  People are often happier in relationships that provide an opportunity to balance each other in a way that is mutually beneficial.  So allow some flexibility in how you define ‘smart and successful’, you are increasing your chances for developing healthy, happy  and lasting friendships and romantic partnership.

Finding Direction and Purpose Through Self-Acceptance.  One of the biggest challenges for young overachievers is narrowing down what direction to take their career ambitions. One theme I have heard repeatedly among high achieving millennials in my practice is “I don’t want to just be really successful at something, I want whatever I do to have meaningful social impact.  It’s important for me to be a part of something that leads to positive change in the world.”  What brings them into my office is that in spite of graduating with prestigious accolades or achieving early success in the tech/business sector, they struggle with feeling they are ‘doing the right thing with their life’.  It’s not uncommon for overachievers to experience a surge of perfectionistic career-related FOMO that can be paralyzing and lead to anxiety and depression.

  • The Stumbling Block:  The challenge for overachievers is that they excel in so many arenas that they have less cause for ruling out career choices.  They can often feel pulled in many different directions at once, and experience heightened pressure to always “know what they’re doing, and have a plan”.  Further, many high achievers are so conditioned to rank jobs based on external markers of success that they have a difficult time identifying and valuing their own personal enjoyment as a reason for making choices.  The added pressure to “make a positive difference in the world” creates a feeling of constant unease and intimidation.

“These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.  The fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll.”  William Deresiewicz, who penned the controversial essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” which reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift overachievers struggling to figure out how to navigate life.

  • The Faulty Logic:  I constantly feel like I don’t have enough concrete evidence to feel like I’m making the right major decisions, but I can’t afford to waste time doing things that aren’t part of a successful future.  If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with my life all the time, I’m failing.”
  • The Solution:  First accept that NO ONE can know with certainty they’re making ‘the right or best choices’ for their own future.  Even people we believe turned out to be highly successful, happy and impressively socially responsible can’t look back and know they couldn’t have done things differently for ‘even better’ results.  The point is, let yourself live your life and appreciate a wide range of experiences, including the lulls and pitfalls.  Personal intuition and wisdom grow from a life full of twists and turns.  Learn to trust your own gut feelings, they are the ultimate decision-making tools for making choices, and you can’t hone these tools without testing them out on different experiences.  Feeling purposeful is entirely personal.  You can gather all sorts of facts, create decision-making diagrams and consider data taken from public opinion.  Sooner or later there will come a time when you cannot and will not know with any degree of certainty that something is going to pan out well.  What you CAN do is trust your future self to have the strength, courage and wisdom to handle the outcome if the day comes when you need to change course.  You’ll use the resources you have available, which will be invaluable wisdom gained from the experience, self-care strategies (you’ve hopefully been practicing along the way) and trusted social support.  That’s all any of us can really do!

15 common cognitive distortions- how our thoughts influence our mental health

What’s a ‘cognitive distortion’ and why do so many people have them? Cognitive distortions are ways that our thought patterns can convince us that something is true or false. These are typically thoughts that occur automatically, and are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions.  Our automatic thoughts can feel rational and accurate, and most of all, they can feel factual. But with examination, we can often find evidence that our thoughts are NOT factual, but based on a set of negative thought patterns that have developed based on our feelings, rather than factual evidence.

Cognitive distortions are at the core of what many cognitive-behavioral and other kinds of therapists try and help a person learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify distorted thoughts, a person can then respond to the disorted thoughts by balancing them with thoughts that are more balanced, and based on fact/reality rather than negative feelings. By refuting negative thoughts over and over again, they will slowly diminish overtime and be automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking.

Aaron Beck first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions and David Burns was responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions.

1. Filtering.

We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.

2. Polarized Thinking.

Things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure–there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

3. Overgeneralization.

We come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

4. Jumping to Conclusions.

Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them and don’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact.

5. Catastrophizing.

We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use what if questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”).

For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections).

6. Personalization.

Thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to us. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person sees themselves as the cause of some negative external event that they were in fact, not resposible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

7. Control Fallacies.

If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless a victim of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”

8. Fallacy of Fairness.

We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. We are convinced that “Life is always fair.”  People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel badly and negative because of it.

9. Blaming.

We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions.

10. Shoulds.

We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything.

For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt, which does not propel us to change, but only serves to make us feel badly.

11. Emotional Reasoning.

We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect the way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.”

12. Fallacy of Change.

We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

13. Global Labeling.

We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves.

For example, they may say, “I’m a loser” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”

14. Always Being Right.

We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.

15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy.

We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

References:

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.

Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.