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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

Why High Achievers Are So Afraid of Happiness

How do I relate my success to satisfaction and happiness? Am I chasing something meaningful or just “something”? The more I sit with these questions, the more I have to challenge myself and realize: I’m not really happy with being happy.

It sounds odd, but in my own personal development work (and in my coaching work), I’ve grown to appreciate a really important paradox: high achievers are uncomfortable with real, meaningful achievement.

We’re like dogs chasing a car — we wouldn’t know what to do if we caught it.

This sounds a little far-fetched but, let me tell you, I see it time and time again. I watch highly driven executives finally get to their next big win and what happens then? After about two seconds of celebrating, a new and often bigger anxiety creeps in to ask “what’s next?”

Let’s unpack this idea a bit, because by understanding what’s happening here we might just be able to do something about it.

We’re All Telling Ourselves a Story While I’m talking about high achievers here, you could just as easily say “perfectionist” or “overachiever.” Not exactly the same ideas, but a lot of overlap. And all have one thing in common: like everyone, there’s a story running in the background that drives the behavior.

I have a story that I tell myself. It’s that I need to do well enough to be accepted. That sounds relatively innocuous, but the risk of failure here is really heavy. If I don’t do well enough, I won’t be accepted. My emotional belief about acceptance, which is just another word for safety, is that it’s conditional. And it’s conditional on doing “well enough.”

All high achievers and high performers have a story that they tell themselves. If I do X then I will get safety, love, acceptance, independence, etc. It’s what puts so much fuel in the fire to go off and do amazing things. It can also be what holds us back from taking risks or stepping too close to failure.

My story put me on a great climb of the ladder. I got into a good school, then into a good job, then a better school, then a better job. It actually served me in a lot of ways, but it was always pushing me away from what I was afraid of, not really pulling me toward what I wanted. Which means that, with every rung of the ladder, I got a little more tired and a little more confused.

Why wasn’t this working? Where is this acceptance and safety that I kept promising myself was just one rung away?

We Judge Our Circumstances Through Our Stories We all have the ability to make split-second judgments about our circumstances. It’s an amazing survival skill. But calling forward these stories that we tell ourselves, we have to ask: through what lens am I evaluating where I am right now?

If you have a story that you need to be perfect to be loved, where you are right now looks pretty bleak. Nobody is perfect. If you have a story like mine, that you need to do enough to be accepted, “right now” is also a bad hand. It could always be better. “Enough” is a constantly rising bar.

The risk here is that, ever so subtly, high achievers are constantly looking at where they are and saying “there’s something missing.” This translates into another damning belief that “things will be okay when…” I will be happy once I get that promotion. I will be satisfied once I finish that paper. I will be fulfilled when I find that person.

This isn’t to say that goals and dreams aren’t important. On the contrary, I love having my goals. But I used to approach the idea of success as something that would “fix” what I had. I used to approach achievement as something I needed to be complete. And sometimes I still do.

This story I told myself served me really well in my younger life. I accomplished a lot and I’m grateful for the push. But as I became older, the voice stopped serving me. I stopped being positive and optimistic. I started being more insecure and dissatisfied.

A lot of my really high-achieving (and insecure) clients started off pretty positive and optimistic. Taking the “glass half-full” metaphor, positivity is “awesome, there’s 70% water in the glass!” Or “yay, there’s 20% water in glass!” It’s looking at what’s there with appreciation. Optimism is “don’t worry, there’s more water coming.” It’s the belief that good things are on the way. Positivity is centered on what’s here now, but optimism is on what will be there.

Enter restlessness, overachievement, and perfectionism. This is the voice that says “70% water? We could get to 80%.” “95% water? We need to get to 96%.” Whatever is there or could be there in the glass is immaterial, because our energy is on what needs to be there next. Eventually, it makes the water that we do have look like it’s just never enough.

Our Stories Tell Us That Enough Never Is I had a conversation with a high-achieving client recently who told me “Jason, I did the gratitude exercise that we agreed to do. And something funny happened — I got scared. I was afraid of losing all these things that I’ve worked so hard to get.”

Later that day, I went on a run and was thinking about the conversation. I was in a bit of a funk and I couldn’t put my finger on why. As I thought about my client’s words, I recalled that my day yesterday was awesome. I had created a big success in my business, I was connecting with my family, and I was feeling really happy. I realized on my run that I was feeling overwhelmed because of how great everything was the day before.

A lifetime of striving to be better and achieve more had hollowed out my ability to appreciate what I had. I didn’t know how to process happiness and celebrate success without immediately turning to what’s next or what I could lose.

The risk in always looking to what’s next isn’t just that we lose focus on what’s here now. It’s also that we could lose the ability to appreciate it. It can become so unfamiliar that when we start to make our way back to gratitude, it feels foreign, like something’s wrong.

Just like the voice of safety in our heads might caution “it’s quiet, too quiet,” the voice of perfection in our heads might caution “I’m happy, too happy.”

We Can Rewrite Our Stories The good news is that we all get to pick up the pen and make edits to our stories. Is it easy? No. We’ve committed our old stories to memory. They’re well-worn neural pathways in our brains. Is it possible? Absolutely.

The first step is to really understand where the story comes from, how it serves you. Like my story of doing enough to be accepted, it takes time to unpack and really figure out what we’re telling ourselves. Ask what you’re really afraid of, what’s at risk for you, and dig deep to the core. Ask what you’re really searching for when you reach for achievement and success.

The second step is to start to work on recognizing when that story is popping up. Take note of what you do or how you feel when that story is really flared up. For me, I notice that I can’t focus. I start reaching for something, anything, to make me feel productive. I also notice an anxious pit in my stomach that I’m not doing enough. Find ways to identify when your old story is flaring up.

The final step is to get suspicious of the voice in your head. Start questioning the story. Ask, “am I really going to be alone if I fail at this?” Ask, “will I really risk my safety if I can’t deliver perfection?” Step out of the emotion and practice questioning the story with a rational mind. Look to your past as data points to inform what’s real and true. Start to write a new story.

There’s a lot of work and time that goes into rewriting any story, especially one that’s rooted in achievement and success. We often have a lot of success that we can point to from being fueled by “enough never is.” But it reaches a tipping point and, speaking from experience, robs us of the opportunity to appreciate what we have and where we are.

Try spending some time this week reflecting on your own story. Think about where it comes from and how you’ll notice when it’s loudest. And get suspicious about it and how much truth is left in that story. It might be time to write a new one.

Good luck on your journey.

Originally published in the innovation


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