The over-achiever trap

I spent yesterday evening reading this amazing piece by Maddy King, recounting her recovery from a traumatic head injury and her new insights from the experience.

The detail about living with concussion was absolutely fascinating. But I also found a lot of it relatable as the tale of an over-achiever forced to re-evaluate, similar to Holly Walker’s pieces on growing up and anxiety. There’s a mindset that was common among our cohort, can-do-anything/must-do-everything, and it seems a lot of us are shedding it as life happens. Good.

Going through school and uni the 1990s and 2000s we were told told to aim high. Setting goals was all the rage, self-evaluation was an integral part of the education system, and the idea of pushing yourself was very prevalent in the broader culture. No-one talked about being perfect, because of course no-one is perfect, but they talked about continuous self-improvement. A never-ending attempt to get better and better and better and do more and more and more and more. For girls, it was all heightened an extra level. You have all these opportunities previous generations never had! Make the most of them!

The culture we grew up in was competitive and individualistic. This was a brave new world where university fees mean you can’t muck around finding yourself, nope, you need to focus, what are YOU going to do with YOUR LIFE? You only live once! Make it count! Oh, but also ENJOY IT! Find your passion! Quickly.

We emerged to adulthood, shiny and bright like fresh minted coins, expecting that we’d change the world with our awesomeness. All the possibilities were open for us!

Maddy writes:

Overachievers like myself are often scared of contentment, because being discontented, dissatisfied with our own progress, unhappy with the state of the world – that’s the fuel that drives us to push ourselves further and do bigger and better things. Some even go so far as to call constant dissatisfaction an entrepreneurial mentality. But I believe this pattern leads to bitterness and stress, unhappiness and misery – and the self indulgence this creates means we’re in no fit state to come up with ground breaking ideas, we can get absorbed in the tunnel vision of everything that’s wrong with life. It’s not the answer. Cultivating deliberate contentment gives us a peaceful and positive outlook, and leaves us with the fertile mental space to see new connections and solve crucial problems.

We believed the bullshit about high expectations being the path to success, and became accustomed to exceeding expectations. (The phrase used for the top available mark on my intermediate school reports!). Trying to aim high all the time is a fool’s errand, it keeps upping the ante – if you exceed the expectations all the time, you set new expectations; if you fall short of your high expectations but still do well, you feel inadequate anyway. Maybe you hand in something that’s only OK, and someone tells you with a frown “this isn’t your best work”.

My grandmother used to say before exams “you can only do your best, remember!”, and I would feel like screaming: THE WHOLE PROBLEM IS STRESSING ABOUT WHETHER I WILL PERFORM AT MY BEST ON THE DAY!

For many of us, worrying about the things we should be doing has become a constant background hum. To the point where it’s obviously ridiculous if we stopped to consider it rationally, but we’re so used to it that we barely pause to think how draining it is to live with, and how completely unnecessary.

Some examples: I feed my kids scrambled eggs for dinner a couple of times a week, but I feel bad their dinners aren’t more interesting and varied. I buy my lunch most office days, but feel bad for frittering money away and not making my lunch. I feel bad for feeling bad about these things, because part of me wants to be a version of myself that doesn’t give a fuck about things that don’t matter. There’s maybe three or four layers of stress-hum for each of those things.

Honestly, the things I can feel weirdly inadequate about are almost never-ending. I compare myself professionally to people my age who don’t have kids, which is absurd; or to people who have kids the same age as my kids but who are ten years older than me, which is even more absurd! I compare myself as a parent to only the nicest memories from my childhood, or to parents of older kids who seem to have things more sorted, or – classic pitfall – I think of the best days of my parenting life as the standard and feel disappointed when they’re not all like that. I cherry-pick too, taking the most successful bits from other people’s lives and feeling like that part of my own life falls short – rather than considering it in the whole. (Oh, I’ll have the PhD thanks but I’ll pass on the huge student loan. Cheers. Also I’ll take the overseas travel, but without the complete running down of savings. And could I please have the stay at home husband but not take on the sole breadwinner role for myself?)

Here are some things for which I am currently vaguely disappointed in myself:

  • Eating eggs. I feel sad about the baby boy chickens being killed. But I like eggs and I’m still breastfeeding B and eggs are very nutrient-dense and a good food. But baby chickens dying. And the misleading free-range labelling scandal. I don’t wanna eat sad chicken eggs, bad enough that I’m complicit in animal exploitation at all!
  • Not doing more to learn te reo and teach D, who is interested in languages, and like a little sponge at the moment for learning new things.
  • Ditto for Hebrew.
  • Not doing more to teach D about Jewish stuff.
  • Not sending D to the Jewish kindergarten, even though it doesn’t fit with my working hours and doesn’t take babies so we’d have to send the kids to separate creches.
  • Not being remotely interested in unschooling the kids at all.
  • Not sending the kids to a kohanga reo.
  • Giving too little money to causes we believe in.
  • Spending too much money on eating out.
  • Not doing enough to keep in touch with my friends overseas.
  • Not doing enough to meet in person with my friends in Wellington.
  • Falling behind on D’s dental hygiene.
  • Not hanging out enough with my husband without the kids.
  • Not being directly involved in politics or social justice activities at the moment despite having no time.
  • Not having a clean house.
  • Checking my phone too often.
  • Getting grumpy too often.
  • Not having done post-graduate study.
  • Not being empathetic and patient enough with D.
  • Not knowing when to be firm with D or how to be firm with D without being stern.
  • Not having time for this blog despite lots of things I want to write.
  • Not being comfortable enough with the gaps and the cracks. Not relaxing enough and just going with the flow.

That’s not a complete list by any means. It’s just a few things off the top of my head to give a smattering of how random and inconsistent the collection is.

How can we avoid feeling like this, when we’re bombarded constantly with messages telling us to do things differently and better? Lots of those messages are well-meaning, and useful, but all the different SHOULDS start to get into your head. Should should should should should.

D’s three year old dental trip was the other week, and the dentist put on a serious face and told me about prevalent weak spots and needing to brush better, every night, every morning, high-strength fluoride toothpaste, big risk of cavities, etc etc. Okkkkkkkk yes dental hygiene is important. I had a root canal when I was five. He’s inherited my crap teeth. It’s been a major preoccupation since the visit, trying to find a fluoride toothpaste he likes, buying a new toothbrush he’ll hopefully prefer, telling him no more marshmallows with his fluffies. And the brushing is… not going well. We’ll get there. I ordered some strawberry toothpaste from the USA, it hasn’t arrived yet. We’re trying to explain the importance of teeth brushing without making him overly anxious about dentists and fillings. ARGHGHGHGHGHGH. I know this is important, but also, I have this tightening in my stomach of remembering that sinking feeling as a child who was so so so good about refusing lollies, who brushed so carefully, and yet who was still told by the dentist every single time “you need new fillings”. And they never just told me like it was a thing we had to put up with because that’s life. They always had to make a big fucking deal about how I needed to brush even better and never have sugar.

When I was 16, miserably awaiting the news about how crap my teeth were at my latest check-up, the dentist said “maybe you should completely stop eating fruit if that’s the main sugar in your diet”. Sometimes the final straw can be good because it makes you realise how heavy the load has become. OH FUCK OFF. FUCK OFF WITH YOUR STUPID SUGGESTIONS. MAYBE BODIES ARE FRAGILE AND THERE IS A LIMIT TO HOW MUCH WE CAN REASONABLY DO TO PREVENT BAD THINGS HAPPENING? HUH? EVER CONSIDER THAT, MR DENTIST?

There’s a whole obsession with living your best life, finding the best way to do something. Even if it’s finding the midpoint between two different extremes, it feels like it’s not enough to be somewhere in the generally medium zone, you have to be at the exact right point.

And it’s all such bullshit!

Life’s too short to worry about whether you’re living your best life.

But by now those habits are very entrenched. The background anxiety is entrenched. The tendency to calibrate ones satisfaction against every other option you could possibly do – and in so doing, find the satisfaction slipping. I saw someone last week who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and she asked if we were still thinking of spending any time overseas. Honestly, I don’t know. Do I have to think about it? I could easily be alive for another fifty or even sixty years! Going overseas to live and work with the kids is not currently on the agenda. Can we talk about the here and now? I know it’s chit-chat, but when did chit-chat become so focused on future plans rather than current life experiences?

B just learnt to walk. He’s understanding new words every day. He loves throwing balls and bopping to music. His favourite foods are orange and avocado. My job is going really well, it’s really interesting. We just had a lovely visit from my husband’s sister, who saved our skins stepping in to look after D while he was sick and unable to go to creche. When he was better and bouncing off the walls, we went to Kilbirnie Rec Centre and he rode his bike around and around the courts. He wanted to push me on one of the sturdy little go cart things and I said ok and it was hilarious, he ran so fast and it must have looked bizarre but I laughed and laughed and laughed. My husband and I had an argument over who took the sick leave for D on Monday and I felt very frustrated with him but then the next day he bought me flowers. Today I needed to buy a present for the third birthday of one of D’s friend’s and I decided before I set out that buying presents is going to be on my “don’t worry too much” list. When they didn’t have the type of Duplo set I wanted, I bought the next thing I saw that I liked and didn’t even look around to see if there were better options. Go me! And tonight I downloaded the Wiggles teeth cleaning app and we’ll try that tomorrow morning.

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4 thoughts on “The over-achiever trap

  1. This post really resonated with me, thank you! I’ve been reading here quietly for years now, and this post made me realise that lately I’d been making myself feel bad because you sound like you’re so patient with D and I’ve really been struggling as our second arrived and my daughter hit 3.5. So ridiculous how we lambast ourselves and hold ourselves up against what we perceive is going on in other people’s lives. Thanks for the reminder to dial that back a bit and focus on the small wins.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 💓💓 I have an unhealthy tendency to be patient with D then completely burst when my husband does something mildly irritating. Not really a good outlet. Life is hard!! Working on it 😲

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I totally get it. My 5 minute journal helped a lot. I’ve fallen out of the habit now (I think mostly because things are better, but maybe because work-work-work; who knows), but it helped with a lot of my “recovering perfectionism”. One thing my therapist said about people like me/us that really resonated was that even when we decide to be zen about things, and “accept” our imperfection in a particular respect, we still tend to put them in our internal debits column. I try to remind myself of that and to work on more genuine “acceptance.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Since writing this one I’ve started to think of some things I can consciously deprioritise. Things that have slipped anyway, and I feel bad about it, but I could decide to feel differently if instead of seeing it as slippage I see it as carefully considered pause on trying to do too many things? Maybe?

    Like

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