In his book Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance, John Eliot, Ph.D, claims that those who are overachievers see falling short of the desired mark as personal failure, while those who are mere high performers, sans the addictive quality, view it as “part of the process.”
Robert Arkin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, finds that overachieving may originate from the desire to avoid negative feedback from others. “They believe that people around them, and they themselves, judge their worthiness based upon how well they do,” he says.
There’s no specific kind of family in which children are more prone to reliance on this kind of approval, as one recovering performance addict can attest. While it could be expected that one in which high demands were placed, or a child felt a need to prove his or her value in the parents’ eyes, would harbor a performance addict, the following story will debunk that myth.
Ellen came from a long line of resilient thrivers. Her paternal grandparents were Russian Jewish immigrants who left their homeland during the pogrom. The word translates from Russian to English as “to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.” The classic musical “Fiddler on the Roof” portrays in dramatic form the plight of Eastern European refugees who were forced to flee. Survival was first on their minds as they traveled steerage class on a boat to Ellis Island. Once in their new homeland, they expected streets paved with gold. What they learned was that such riches needed to be earned with hard work.
Ellen’s father was the third of the four children her grandparents raised. Her grandfather took a job as a presser in the clothing industry and in photos Ellen saw of him, he wore a stoic expression, perhaps as a result of his arduous endeavor to support them all. When her father would describe his childhood, he would say with embarrassment that his family was “on relief” — receiving assistance from the public welfare system. Ashamed of their financial poverty, he was determined to move up in the world, to provide for himself and his family.
He did so, even as he remained in the working class.
She related to her therapist that she couldn’t remember her sister or herself lacking anything material because of her parents’ work ethic. Her mother used to say that her father “worked crazy hours” — primarily as a milkman and a bus driver — to maintain the family. Her mother held several part-time jobs so she could be home with her daughters and once they were old enough to be home alone, she began a full-time job as a switchboard operator.
In addition, her parents volunteered and socialized with friends. Their relationship seemed ideal. They made looking good appear easy and seemed to be universally loved. But the idyllic home life her parents created led Ellen to have high expectations for herself. She was diagnosed at age 4 with asthma and podiatric problems that required treatment. These health challenges had her believing she needed to perform at increasingly higher levels to keep up with her peers and compensate for feeling like a burden to her parents.
Where Does the Thought Come from that We Have to Achieve to Receive?
What we believe about expectations isn’t always explicit. Much of it comes from observing and making mental connections and taking them on as fact and necessity for survival. These ideas can wait until adulthood to bloom.
This craving for approval became dramatically apparent in Ellen’s career, as she emulated her father’s compulsion to work hard. A desire to share financial responsibility with her husband and a need to keep up appearances fueled her work. She felt compelled to seem professional and reliable, the “go-to” person for family, friends, and clients. She laughs when she says that her “resume is three pages and growing,” because she has held several jobs simultaneously and still at times, lived paycheck to paycheck. When she was widowed and became a single parent, she redoubled her efforts since she knew she needed be the sole support for herself and her son.
As she looks back, Ellen experiences a sense of pride that she was able to keep herself and her son in their home and pay the bills. That would be considered functional. The spinning hamster wheel obsession around making it look like she wasn’t sweating it was where it fell into the dysfunctional realm. “I loved hearing how amazing it was that I could do it all, even in the face of the loss I experienced. It fueled my desire to perform even more extraordinarily. I got off on feeling exceptional.” That is the addictive aspect at play. She worried that she would be found out as an imposter.
Ellen relates that her performance addiction also took the form of “savior behavior.” She felt irrationally responsible for outcomes — in her life and in the lives of those in her own counseling practice. Logic couldn’t convince her that she was putting appearance before solid therapy. After all, who wouldn’t feel proud to hear positive feedback from clients and their families?
She says that “It felt like I imagine a drug high would — and I craved more. I looked for more ways to dazzle. I kept seeking interventions that would help patients, but additionally, the addiction I was unaware I had.”
Do You See it Coming?
For some, the signs are hiding in plain sight, even if family and friends observe the habits and patterns and are vocal about the impact on their lives and that of the overachiever. Most people with addictions don’t recognize the effect of their behaviors, even if they’re aware of the repetitive patterns and compulsion to continue. The same inquiry/cost-benefit analysis that can be applied to substance abuse can help deal with performance addiction. If you wonder if you are immersed in performance addiction, ask yourself these questions:
- What does it mean to you to be center stage?
- What messages did you receive about performance in your formative years?
- How did you internalize these messages?
- What do you tell yourself your success or failure means about your worth as a person?
- How does it feel when your efforts aren’t applauded?
- What fears underlie this dynamic? (financial lack may be a core apprehension)
- What do you believe is your purpose?
- What’s the upside of continuing these patterns?
- What toll have these patterns taken on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of your life?
- Can you imagine changing them, even an attitude or behavior at a time?
- Who will you turn to for support as you change?
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