Hi, my name is JR and I am a recovering achievement addict. Never heard of it? It's not exactly something that would get cataloged in the DSM-V handbook of recognized mental health conditions, but achievement addiction is a real affliction. Achievement addicts live a life structured psychologically around the accumulation of achievements — whether they're professional, creative, or academic. Need to score an A+ on everything you do? Compulsively ace every class you take? Find resting on your laurels impossible because you're obsessed with what hoop you can jump through next? Congratulations — your friends might call you an "overachiever" or a "perfectionist," but what you may actually be is an achievement addict.
I myself was a prime candidate for achievement addiction from day one. I skipped two years in school, went to university at a bizarrely young age, and was also a competitive athlete. Welcome to the breeding ground for an achieving spirit. This all meant that I pushed myself ruthlessly hard for years, even though my own instincts increasingly started to diverge from my own well-established pattern of running ever faster, jumping ever higher. It's taken a long time — and graduation from university (which is, let's face it, basically based on the accumulation of one gold star after another) — to realize that I don't actually want to do this sh*t for it's own sake anymore. Stop this ride, I want to get off.
But opting out can seem like a foreign country for the achievement-addicted and dealing with simply being, rather than constantly achieving, can be severely psychologically challenging. Without a next big achievement on the horizon, how will I define myself? How will my parents be proud of me? How will I compare to the shiny academics I meet at my husband's work parties? I've had to find a therapist to help me understand that perfectionism and a will to succeed are both things of value, but they can be seriously destructive. Are you nodding? Based on my own experience, here are seven ways to tell that you, too, might be struggling with this misunderstood addiction.
1. You Feel Defined By What You've Achieved
How do you think that other people perceive you? Do you think they believe that you're a good friend, beautiful, funny, and kind — or do you think that the first thing that pops into their heads is the litany of amazing stuffy you've accomplished? Do you bring your achievements up at parties? Do your achievements simultaneously seem crucially important and kind of irrelevant because, hey, you've got much bigger stuff to do in the future?
If your achievements are the lens through which you view yourself, and what you believe defines you to others, let's face it: you may have a problem.
2. What You've Done Is Never Good Enough
Perfectionism is the virtue that can come back to bite us. If I'd scaled a mountain and won the Nobel Prize by 26, I would have been immediately dismissive of both achievements, and felt enormously self-critical of the fact that I hadn't yet won two Nobel prizes. Achievement addicts always set the bar higher, and past achievements are constantly left in the dust; the focus is always forward.
Achievement addicts also often fail to take what therapists often call "nourishment" from what they've done. Rather than letting themselves feel proud or getting satisfaction from their work, they're always pushing on to the next thing. It's the polar opposite of vanity — it's more like a relentless wheel, grinding ever forwards. And it leaves us empty in the center.
3. Take Away The Gold Stars And You're Not Sure What's Left
The core problem of achievement addiction is that it dominates self-esteem and self-perception. Which is why it may not immediately seem like an addiction at first glance — achievers are often ruthlessly controlling of themselves, which contrasts with our vision of addicts as people who lack self-control. But the constant accumulation of medals/high marks/accolades is the overwhelming motivating force in their lives. And without it, you're not entirely sure what's left.
4. The Idea Of A Life Without More Achievement Fills You With Panic
A relative once informed me that if you stopped achieving goals, there's no point in being alive. So, understandably, the idea of not going further — of being the person of whom guests at dinner parties say "What happened to her? She had so much potential" — still fills me with utter dread.
Even though I'm trying to make the active decision to step off the ladder, I keep grappling with my own impulses to assure people that I'm still "progressing" in some way. Look at this new thing I'm doing! Look at how much potential I'm fulfilling! It's maddening — and it takes a lot of effort to stop thinking that way.
5. You Feel That Achievement Is What Makes You Worthy Of Love
My husband told me, after a particularly difficult therapy session, that even if I stopped doing anything of note and just pottered around eating cake and walking dogs for the rest of my life, he'd think I was awesome, interesting, and utterly deserving of love. I started to cry.
Achievement addiction sometimes develops because the attention that achievement gets you is the only guaranteed form of positive feedback that you have in your life. People who believe that their successes brought them love, friendship, and respect (particularly if those things weren't forthcoming from anywhere else in their lives) cling to them because in their eyes, it's their only stable source of good things.
6. You Suffer Failures And Setbacks Very Poorly
Understandably, if you're reliant on achievements for all your love, stability, and feelings of safety, any time when you don't hit the mark can feel like the end of the world. It's very hard for achievement addicts to dismiss small failures, because they feel intensely personal — and they will always, always blame themselves.
7. You Have Chronic Self-Comparison Syndrome
Not doing as well as that one kid in your class? Got one mark lower than the top? Won't be the one with the most impressive career at your high school reunion? It may seem juvenile, but this is the relentless self-persecution that preoccupies the achievement addict. Realistically, it is exceptionally rare to be the very best in the world at what you do or love. So the cycle of perfectionism is bound to be a torturous one. But that doesn't stop addicts from clinging to it, beating themselves up because other people are one rung higher, and pushing themselves harder still.
The good news? Achievement addiction can be "treated" — with a good, considerate therapist and a loving support network who appreciate you for who you are, not what you've done. And you can reach a gradual understanding that you are a worthwhile, good person without needing to be the top of the totem pole.
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