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Why Being an Overachiever Doesn’t Always Get You to Your Goal

You may just be swimming against the tide.

By Marie Maerz/ Shutterstock
By Marie Maerz/ Shutterstock

“Let go of your attachment to being right and suddenly your mind is more open. You’re able to benefit from the unique viewpoints of others, without being crippled by your own judgment.”

Ralph Marston

For as long as I can remember, I have always been an achiever. I am an only child.

What, you ask, does being an only child have to do with being an achiever? Well, I believed they went hand-in-hand. As a high schooler, I’d joke that I had to:  

  • Do well in school.
  • Finish what I started.
  • Choose my friends wisely.
  • Steer clear of smoking/drinking/drugs.
  • Never get in trouble.

Because, hey, my parents didn’t have a backup quarterback who could step in and take my place.

In my early 20s, I met my husband. While I was immediately drawn to him, the more I peeled back the layers of the onion, the more I was astonished by how similar we were.  

We were both:

  • Extremely responsible (especially for young 20-somethings!).
  • Driven.
  • Honest.
  • Independent.
  • Confident.

Oh, and by the way, he’s an only child too.

Funny enough, my husband and I have a large contingency of only-child friends. I think, maybe, just like our similarities drew us together, we subconsciously chose friends who have personality traits that are in alignment with ours.

I cultivated this list and ran some impromptu research asking which of these apply to those friends:

  • I am responsible and respectful.
  • I am serious.
  • I am organized and scheduled.
  • I am always on time.
  • I don’t like arguing.
  • I am independent.
  • I am driven.

They said yes to almost every single one!

I wore these personality traits like a badge of honor, proud to check all of them off like I won a lottery ticket. My informal only child research made me proud. My only child tribe is filled with succeeders, drivers, and high achievers, and I was one of them.

So when my husband and I faced infertility, we did what any high-achiever does, we went into attack mode.  We interviewed several doctors, figured out a game-plan, and did whatever it took to meet our goal of getting pregnant.

Can you imagine what it was like for two high-achievers to go through six rounds of IVF treatments and not have the outcome we had worked so hard to get — pregnancy? It went against all we knew.

Quickly, we realized that our end goal wasn’t to get pregnant, but to be parents, so we decided we would go the adoption route. This roller coaster ride was entirely different than that of IVF, but no less taxing on us both mentally.

We were finally blessed with a little girl. My husband and I were over the moon. After all that we have been through, we were now parents.

This beautiful baby was ours. The minute we signed the binding agreement for adoption (24 hours after she was born), every single negative emotion, feeling of strain, and anxiety dissipated. Our family was complete, exactly as it was supposed to be.

As parents of an only child, we thought we knew what to expect and anticipated a well-worn path that was quite familiar.

At age 5, our daughter was diagnosed with ADHD. Her behavior in school was getting significantly worse. Forget academic concerns; she was irrational, impulsive, and aggressive. I believed she was brought to me because I was meant to help her, guide her, and provide her with the support necessary to thrive and not just survive. I started to once again move into attack mode to get her all the help she needs. Finding the best doctors, working with the right therapist, shifting diets, advocating at school. My achiever mode came in handy again as I navigated this new world.

As our daughter continued to find her way in the world, my husband and I started to see just how different she was from either of us and what we deemed the epitome of an only child. To our surprise, the checklist representative of most only children was actually a list of antonyms for our daughter — her list looked more like this:

  • I am aloof and dreamy.
  • I am silly.
  • I am disorganized.
  • I move at my own pace.
  • I enjoy negotiating every point.
  • I am co-dependent on my mom.
  • I give up when things get difficult.

As a coach, I am all about how do I work with individuals to maximize their potential so they can get out of their own way. My thought process was to apply this same system to my daughter so she could acquire the skills in life to be an achiever, which to me, meant helping her acquire the traits on the only child list.  

Together, we created to-do lists and checklists to help organize her. I would remind her to take schoolwork and homework more seriously, and that not everything is a negotiation. I found myself frustrated more often than not, all while reminding myself that I was put here to help her become the young lady she is meant to be.

I meditate regularly and about 18 months ago, I was meditating for guidance and a clear path of what to do next to help my daughter. It was during one of these meditations that I had an epiphany: What if I had it all wrong? What if God didn’t give me my daughter because I am supposed to help her? What if God gave me my daughter so she could help me?  

You see, all of these attributes that I valued my entire life came at a cost; they made me rigid, high-strung, and critical. I operated from this quickened pace, and steer clear if you slowed me down. Patience isn’t part of my inner being.

This was my personal ah-ha moment.

I am not sure if my ego was in the way or I if just wasn’t living with enough awareness (I think a bit of both), but it took me eight-plus years to figure out the important lessons my daughter was meant for me to learn from her. This is beyond those lessons from motherhood: love, compassion, selflessness. These were complex character traits that drove me and defined me.

I have become freer in my day-to-day life. I have fewer to-do lists (and consciously decide often that it is OK to not do something on my list). I enjoy the process, not just the progress, and I am able to slow down in general, to enjoy being present with the simple things that surround us. Oh, and no longer do I panic when I’m five minutes late because Pey and I loved that song and we felt like dancing through it instead of brushing our hair.

Lessons come from unexpected places. We are all beings of growth — push yourself out of your comfort zone, you may really like who you become in the end. I am thankful for all my daughter will continue to teach me.

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