Why Overachievers Need To Manage Stress Differently

Twenty20 / ilovealleyspix
Twenty20 / ilovealleyspix

Stress. The word is overused. It’s quite ironic.

In itself, stress isn’t a bad thing. Our levels of arousal go up and down all day long and we need them to. Stress gets us moving. Sometimes very quickly in the wrong direction, but mostly just moving.

There’s a line though, and for a lot of people in the modern world it gets crossed on a daily basis. In some ways the lives we live have changed more over the past 30 years than the 300 before that. Digital information technology has catapulted us into a brave new world, and the pace it demands from us leaves little time to relax or to adjust to these changes.

We’re no longer able to switch off. Quite literally. With email, smart phones and a global workplace, we’re expected to be in contact 24/7, and we’re expected to do things faster and better now, just like the computers we do those things on. People consider it normal to continue working from home after they leave their job in the evening. This is all relatively new. Add all that to the familiar, old-school worries like relationships, health and financial security and there’s plenty to push us over that line.

We all respond to the pressures of modern life in different ways. I believe that our previous experiences, and our concept of who we are as people, can play important parts in setting the bar for our own personal stress threshold. That is, the individual point at which we might start to manifest troubling symptoms as a result of being in a heightened state for prolonged periods. These include chronic anxiety and phobia (obviously), but also all the stress related physical illnesses from IBS to heart attacks, and other psychological conditions like depression.

What’s going on inside

Undue stress is often caused by an internal battle with long held negative self-beliefs. Pretty much everyone will have a limiting belief that could stifle their potential in some way. I feel that these are among the things that can determine just how affected we are by the stuff we come in contact with on a daily basis.

Sadly, a thing that psychologists call the “confirmation bias” — which is essentially the natural human desire to be right — means that once a limiting idea becomes a part of our unconscious belief system (something like: “I’m stupid/ugly/unlovable”), we’ll not only encounter more things in our environment that “prove” this to be so, but we’ll actually go around looking for (and therefore creating) the evidence of our ugliness, stupidity or unloveableness. It can mean that we tend to get the very thing that we least want, and that once we start getting it, we’re likely to keep getting more and more of it.

Superiority complex = inferiority complex

These negative self-beliefs can remain hidden from the conscious mind. Paradoxically, our reaction to them can actually make us appear (to ourselves as well as others) to believe the polar opposite of the limiting belief itself. Basically, these insecurities can sometimes make us seem pretty cock sure of ourselves.

For example, let’s say that someone holds the limiting belief that she is not smart enough, and that this belief dates back to her father’s disappointment over her early school grades.

As a child, she could react to his disapproval in one of two ways: she could say to herself, “I’m stupid, I might as well stop trying,” and grow up to be a chronic under-achiever. On the other hand, she could react against the negative message by saying, “I am smart enough, I’m going to prove you wrong!” and start out on a mission to confirm her intelligence.

If unmet, every challenge from that point on would threaten to confirm all her deepest fears. Ergo this child could grow up to become fiercely competitive with everyone around her. Because of the powerful need to prove herself in the face of her old limiting belief, she absolutely must win.

She’ll be likely to display a natural aptitude for all that she does because she would run a mile from anything that might make her look stupid. This is what Carol Dweck calls the fixed mindset (more about this here). A person like this will always go for the easy win rather than risk failure by challenging herself with something new or difficult. Consequently, as the wins stack up, she can even convince herself of her superiority.

However, she’s unlikely to be truly satisfied by any of her successes because no matter what she achieves, she will still hold the unconscious belief that she’s at a deficit: not smart enough. As a result, she’ll keep pushing and striving in a perpetual state of unconscious fear. And rather than actually making her feel that much better, the more she achieves, the more stress she puts herself under because there’s even more to lose.

Being a high achiever of this kind is the equivalent of being a fast runner simply because you have a tiger chasing you down. It’s not a pleasant way to exist. It means that many of the biggest winners in the world are actually just really, really scared… all the time. The real kicker is that when people like this are in charge (as they often are) they force those underneath them to think in the same way.

Society, of course, happily fuels this kind of fear because it pays right back into the economy. The less good we feel about ourselves, the more we need to buy/win/achieve to feel “OK.” It means that the increased stress of modern society makes the digital world we live in into a somewhat sinister and self-serving anxiety machine.

I saw a meme the other day with this message:

“In a world which feeds off insecurity, self-love is an act of rebellion.”

I think it just about sums it up. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog