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Do You Carry the “Overachiever Gene” and What Can You Do About It?

*excerpted and adapted from Women Overcoming O-Syndrome: Real, Raw, Unapologetic by Theresa M. Robinson & CollabHERators

Warning. Sentiments expressed in the book (and in the excerpt below) are often crass and not veiled in political correctness, tactfulness, civility, or etiquette. If you’re easily offended or blush at the mere suggestion of an off-color thought or remark, then the book is not for you. Each collabHERator was encouraged to just say it like it is and how she feels it—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without apology. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I ask you to please refrain from judgment.

“I don’t have time to be sick.”

I can’t afford to be sick” (and not in the monetary way).

Admit it. You’ve likely said this to yourself before, or something similar, haven’t you? I know I have. I remember once working on a training proposal with a very tight deadline. Not having completed the work yet, I woke up on the morning it was due with a sore throat and stiff joints, and one of the first thoughts that hit me was, “Oh no, I can’t be sick. This proposal is due before five.” Sickness doesn’t consult our schedule. Shoveling Zicam and vitamin C down my throat was more of an effort to save the work and preserve my “can-do Betty” reputation versus trying to stave off the flu.

Get Real

I don’t want to be that woman who doesn’t have her shit together.

— Toni, a collabHERator

And what about that “oh no” feeling working mothers can experience when our child gets sick at the most inopportune time (as if getting sick could ever happen at an opportune time!). It’s a very panicky feeling waking up and discovering our child is too sick for pre-school and we’re scheduled to deliver a high-stakes presentation to a key client. What makes it so panicky is that we also have no backup. Our partner is out of town on a business trip. No relatives near enough. And no friends close by.

In addition to knowing that others may sometimes judge the ability of working mothers to handle the demands of both work and parenting, there is nothing quite like the realization that there’s no alternative except calling in to the office with the news that we can’t come in—and providing the reason. Sick child. No back-up childcare.

Through the overachiever lens, it’s like working so hard against all odds to win the race and then having to concede defeat just as we’re about to cross the finish line. And even though our boss is sincere and says, “I understand. These things happen. Take care of your child. We’ve got it covered,” as overachievers, what we hear is, “You can’t handle both. You should be home caring for your child. I’ll have “Step-in Steve” give the presentation. He’s here today, and he doesn’t have sick child issues.”

Get Real

Overachievers, I think, place expectations on themselves that others don’t. My husband has reminded me several times that I’m doing stuff that nobody else is doing and then getting stressed out about it because I’m not achieving it. He said to me, “Nobody else is measuring their success that way.”

— Staci, a collabHERator

Being an overachiever oftentimes means that anxiety becomes normalized. We’re constantly pumped so full of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) that our body, mind, and spirit become addicted to the drama. You know that girlfriend who we insist lives for the drama? Well, guess what? She’s us! We are the girlfriend who’s addicted to the drama of overachieving. And just because we’ve managed to limit the drama to more “worthy” pursuits and goals makes it no less of an issue. The self-imposed pressure to overachieve and the resulting addiction keeps us stuck rather than allowing us to address what’s really going on and then create what we need and want. Paradoxically, by overachieving we sabotage ourselves as women while trying to excel in a male-dominant system often pitted against us.

And when we’re stuck, we don’t even know how ridiculous we can start sounding. We don’t realize that it’s not anybody else’s responsibility to take care of us. We think we have to seek permission and then wait for it in order to get help and support.

Get Real

I’ve just been drowning in work lately. Just trying to keep my head above water and failing. Some of my colleagues suggested that I should get an executive coach. I believe discussions have started, but I’m not sure approval has been granted yet for me to even have a coach.

— Sofia, a collabHERator

And when we’re not actively seeking help and support, our brain, sensing the danger to our overall well-being, goes into overdrive to try to de-escalate an impending crisis. How familiar do these rationalizations sound?

I guess I can make it to Friday.

Things will let up soon. I just have to hang in there a little while longer.

It’s not so bad.

They’ll think I can’t work under pressure.

I just need to focus.

I can make it through this.

This isn’t a good time for me to be tapping out.

The more we allow the overachiever gene to dominate and control us, the less likely our ability to really tune in to ourselves. And so we “miss” the truth of what’s happening to our well-being. If I can work myself out of feeling anything, then there’s no problem. It’s the same with going so long without food and then reaching a point that we feel no longer hungry. When overachieving starts to feel like a “normal” state, it becomes our normal state. And not in a good way. We lose the awareness to know that we’re heading into danger. Overachieving gets physiologically normalized and can (wo)manifest itself in a myriad of ways leading to unhappiness, exhaustion, burnout, and health issues.

Get Real

For my generation, the boomers, there were less options then. We worked our tails off, and we did it earlier in our career more than later. That’s what you did. You didn’t have a choice. Well, okay, everyone has a choice. But you kept your head down, and you worked with your head down. Now we’ve got this whole generation of millennials coming in and they’re saying, “Whoa, this sucks. This is nuts.” Why can’t we be happy for that sentiment that we’ve wanted to say all along? But it’s coming from them. Why can’t we be happy for that? How can we be productive or capable of our full potential when we’re exhausted, burned out, and unhappy? Those millennials are on to something.

— Beverly, a collabHERator

Get Real

God was gentle with me at first, whispering to me to slow down. Then when I received a life-threatening diagnosis, I figured that God had resorted to telling me what I needed in a way I would understand. “Sit your ass down!” From that experience, I started to contemplate slowing down and why I don’t seem to know how to do it for myself.

— Gabriella, a collabHERator

That some of us are subjecting ourselves to enormously high, unmanaged, chronic stress levels suggests that overachieving is killing us! Unfortunately, we live in a society where taking rest is an act of courage. For some, who have to fight for it, it’s an act of rebellion. How can we leverage those times when we do feel the courage to do something to better our situation?

We all get what I call glimmers of courage to know what’s right for us and what’s not. Because the glimmer is fleeting, we can quickly lose it and subsequently succumb to the demands and fall right back into overachiever normalcy mode.

Get Real

I pay attention to my physicality. If I start getting headaches or if I start having a lot of neck or jaw pain, it’s my way of knowing that I’m falling back into old patterns.

— Adrienne, a collabHERator

Imagine if we regarded these glimmers as impulses. I know. Impulses are commonly thought of by some as negative, and acting on impulse is sometimes considered bad. But when is acting on impulse always a good thing? When it allows us to save ourselves! We can make a lasting impact on our well-being and put the brakes on the overachiever gene—and her sisters, perfectionism and competitiveness—by remaining more deliberate about what matters.

Here are 5 ideas to get you started.

1. Decide what is good enough and what needs to be more than good enough.

2. Start using nondual thinking, e.g. you’re not either a success or a failure; you’ll succeed in some areas and fail in others. Be okay with that.

3. Institute a daily pause that gives you space to just be.

4. Woo you! Embark on a love affair with yourself.

5. Engage in an activity or hobby for which you have little to no skills, and just have fun!

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O-SYNDROME CHECKLIST

With how many of these aspects of O-Syndrome have you struggled in the past year?

  • Overachieve: not only to strive
    for success above and beyond the standard or expected level, often at the
    detriment to yourself and your relationships, but also to feel compelled
    to do so due to feelings of unrelenting, self-imposed pressure
  • Overcommit: to excessively
    obligate yourself beyond your ability or capacity to fulfill, often to
    please others or to prove and re-prove yourself to others
  • Overaccommodate: to obsessively
    provide services or favors and make adjustments, whether requested of you
    or not, for the convenience and comfort of others, even at the
    inconvenience or expense of yourself, oftentimes accompanied by
    overapologizing
  • Over isolate: to deliberately or
    inadvertently separate and insulate yourself from the help and support of
    others due to the faulty thinking that a strong and successful woman with
    help and support may be perceived as incapable
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