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Anxious Achievers: behaviors and how to change them

Aug 13, 2022

Have you ever been referred to as an overachiever or perfectionist?  Yeah, me too... and for a long time, I wasn't sure if this was a "good" or a "bad" thing.  I mean, from my own personal experience, I definitely developed the belief that it was an admirable thing to be ambitious, hardworking and successful.  However, as time went on, as I grew older, and as I learned more about themes of mental health, I realized that my beliefs weren't really entirely my own.  I learned that I have the freedom to redefine the meaning of success as well as re-organize my priorities- which would allow for a newfound experience with what it means to "achieve."  

Lately, in efforts to develop an E-Course on how to shift perfectionist behaviors, I've been speaking to other people that have identified as or have been referred to as perfectionists or overachievers.  In these conversations, my empathy has grown more and more for anxious achievers.  In addition to my growing empathy, I am also growing in my understanding of some of the major themes that anxious achievers experience in their lives... like, all the time.  

I'd like to share with you six major themes that are common for anxious achievers and I invite you to read each one with an open mind and an open heart as you determine whether they resonate for you too. 

Anxious Achievers (patterns of behavior+ strengths and challenges):

1. Thinking over and over again about any little mistake they’ve made, ruminating all the wrongs and giving little attention to their rights

Anxious achievers tend to ruminate, allowing their minds to think repetitively, about the mistakes they've made in their lives.  First I'd like to name a strength in this pattern of behavior: anxious achievers are AMBITIOUS and they want to achieve and succeed at all they can... this makes them hard workers and it also makes them very conscientious about how their behavior makes others feel. One of the downsides to experiencing this pattern of behavior is that anxious achievers tend to feel really down on themselves, and, in giving little attention to the wins that they already made, they "beat themselves up" and sometimes find themselves procrastinating, avoiding or making even more mistakes because their focus is off.  

2. Experiencing overwhelm on a regular basis because they’re hoping for perfection in all they do- despite rationally knowing that perfection isn’t possible

Whew... I know I mentioned empathy before, but this one really ramps up that compassion I feel for anxious achievers.  It is so frustrating for these ambitious, caring, and striving individuals to feel so overwhelmed in trying to achieve something that they rationally know isn't quite possible- perfection.  I would never want an ambitious person to think that they should be less ambitious or that they should dim their light because they've gotten to the point of overwhelm.  Rather, I'd want the ambitious person to know that they can both be imperfect and AMAZING at the same time.  They can both make mistakes and thrive, fall behind and catch up, fail and succeed.  Anxious Achievers tend to think in "all or nothing" terms... leading them to push, push, push to succeed fully; or only start something when they're sure they can do it well, or abandon ship, procrastinate, give up and self isolate in shame.  The strength is this; anxious achievers are caring people!  The challenge; anxious achievers tend to be really mean to themselves in their own minds.

3. Putting too much on their plate because they constantly feel like they’re running out of time- and strive, anxiously to succeed at all they can

Guilty!  Yup, this was so me... and sometimes, still is me.  It's important that us anxious achievers make a habit out of being open and vulnerable about our authentic selves.  When we focus on healing and growing our mental health, it's imperative to know that success in this requires vulnerability, which is pretty difficult for our fellow anxious achievers who desperately want to appear like they have it all together.  When we are open and vulnerable with ourselves (side note: this requires honesty, self compassion, and self acceptance), we are then able to recognize the patterns of behavior that are actually depleting us rather than energizing and fulfilling us.  Anxious achievers that I've spoken to tend to feel really depleted, exhausted by their own thoughts and their own relentless go-getter behavior.  One strength associated with this pattern of behavior is that anxious achievers are super reliable people and can get a lot done in little time.  However, the challenge associated with this pattern is that these people also feel regularly exhausted by their own expectations and tend to set expectations that they aren't realistically able to meet.  

4. Feeling unworthy if they’re unable to achieve both for themselves as well as for others

Oh boy, this one I feel deeply and I truly feel so much compassion for this experience.  Unworthy.  Perhaps you say the word out loud to yourself and acknowledge what that feels like for you.  Notice whether any emotions flood you now... unworthy... It's very common for anxious achievers to feel like their value is only dependent on their ability to achieve, and when they aren't achieving, they feel, well, horrible.  And sometimes, there are circumstances that block the ambitious person from achieving the things they normally would (like, for example having an injury or recovering from a surgery or recovering from giving birth).  This. Is. Really. Tough.  The strength in this experience is this; the anxious achiever will bust their butt to get things done!  The challenge; the anxious achiever is left feeling really low about themselves, perhaps irritable, prone to lashing out on others, or unable to connect with their personal strength when they aren't able to meet their own expectations of success. 

5. Feeling frustrated with themselves because they want to behave rationally in their life, but tend to experience a roller coaster of emotions

The brain is a tricky thing... in our heads, we hear our thoughts, but there's so much more going on in the brain than the thoughts we frequently hear.  Our brain is composed of so many different parts responsible for different functions.  The pre-frontal cortex (the upper, frontal region of the brain) is responsible for our rational thinking, while the lower region of the brain (and oldest part of the brain) is responsible for our emotional experience, response to threat (fight, flight or freeze) and unconscious beliefs- those core beliefs that we have, aren't regularly aware of, and that impact most of our behavior.  Anxious achievers feel frustrated with themselves and sometimes with others for their ability to think rationally while still engaging in irrational behavior.  Not only that, but anxious achievers, due to their underlying needs, also tend to experience a roller coaster of emotions when things either are or aren't going right.  For example, they might get extremely excited when they "succeed" and extremely low when they don't.  The strength in this experience is that anxious achievers are often able to recognize when they aren't being rational.  The challenge is that they also tend to be hard on themselves for not being "better." 

6. Often seeking external validation because they don’t fully trust in their own positive self talk

Guilty again!  I can't tell you how many times I've called a friend or family member for reassurance, how many times I put my needs aside for the needs of someone else, how many times I distrusted my own ability, or how many times I begged for someone to come back into my life just so that I could believe I was important in this world.  Anxious achievers tend to have a fear of being alone, a fear of people leaving them and of being harshly judged by the world- hence why they might choose to judge themselves harshly before someone else can- "see, at least I know I suck... you don't have to tell me, because I knew it before you did." Ouch, right?  For this reason, they are seeking validation from others, validation for how they feel, how they think and how they behave, because if others agree with them, they can feel a bit more confident that the people who agree with their way of living aren't going to leave them.  Here's the strength; anxious achievers tend to be really open to feedback and open to the opinions of others!  The challenge though; anxious achievers don't give themselves enough opportunity to practice how to self validate... leaving them feeling alone, confused and insecure a lot of the time.  Another challenge, anxious achievers often lack emotional boundaries- leading them to feel overly impacted by negative judgement from others. 

Here's what I hope you can take away from this article: there are strengths and challenges to almost all of our patterns of behavior and when we can observe our behavior with non judgement, we open up more opportunity to effectively shift into feeling more present and powerful on a consistent basis. 

If this article resonates for you, I'd love you to check out the newest episode on the Mindful Revamp Podcast and share with a friend or family member that might benefit too!  In this newest episode, I dive more deeply into the themes discussed here and I offer specific examples and specific coping strategies for each common behavioral pattern! 

Stay tuned for my soon to launch E-Course (because I'll be offering a crazy sweet deal on this course for early sign ups!)