Insecure overachiever: a blessing and a curse

Insecure overachiever: a blessing and a curse

I never would have classed my friend Boyan as ‘insecure’. For as long as I’d known him, he exuded warmth, energy and confidence. And he was beloved by his colleagues at his high-intensity, long-hours corporate job, where he was known as someone who was both a stellar performer and nice to be around. So it was a complete shock to me when, shortly after switching roles to a charity (of all places), the pressure of taking on a new directorship and long hours associated with a labour-intensive bid absolutely broke him. Just the thought of starting work on Monday would cause panic attacks and uncontrollable sobbing.

I now understand Boyan is an ‘Insecure Overachiever’, and his experience will likely be familiar to anyone working in similarly high-pressured City jobs. Insecure overachievers are often highly successful – they can be found among CEOs, presidents and senior partners. Yet no matter how successful and brilliant they may be, they never lose a profound sense of doubt in their own abilities. This drives them to push themselves harder – working longer hours, taking fewer breaks – creating a vicious cycle that too often pushes them past a breaking point. Their self-worth is highly entangled with career success; to fail at work would be to fail as a person. Taken to its extremes, insecure overachiever-ism can lead to serious physical and mental health problems, including chronic pain, addictions, and depression.

Insecure overachievers can certainly be beneficial in the workplace. They have high standards and bring a tenacity that is needed in many competitive corporate environments. Employers know this, and may inadvertently (or not-so-inadvertently) create reward structures which drive them. For example, many employees’ bonuses are based on their performance in comparison to their colleagues. But it is not possible to know how everyone else is doing – so insecure overachievers set themselves impossibly high standards, just to be sure.

For Boyan, his insecure overachiever tendencies were actually more sustainable in his previous corporate job, largely due to the supportive network his colleagues created for him – which is why he eventually decided to return to it. Even when he was working late, there was always someone around to force him to take a break and go for dinner. He was able to blow off steam with people who understood. And he regularly received positive feedback from people he respected who genuinely appreciated his work. It was when he was thrust out of his comfort zone while isolated by home working in an unfamiliar role that he started to spiral.

His experience just goes to show, it is possible to be an insecure overachiever and still function well in work. If you identify as an insecure overachiever, there are steps you can take to protect your mental health as well as the career you love:

  1. Be conscious of triggers. Is there a particular type of work that makes you break out in sweats, or a senior colleague whose disapproval you fear? To the extent you can, try and avoid tiggers for your anxiety and focus on what you enjoy about your job. If you feel comfortable, you might even enlist HR to help you navigate difficult relationships and avoid triggers.
  1. Give yourself space to breathe. You shouldn’t have to justify taking appropriate breaks, but if nothing else consider that you will not be performing your best when you haven’t slept or eaten. Just taking the time to relax or go for a walk can boost your mood and productivity. By coming up for air you can stop the cycle of anxiety associated with your work and protect your mental health long-term.
  1. Recognise what makes you valuable outside of your work, and define success on your own terms. Nurture relationships and hobbies; set goals for yourself. Part of crafting your own definition of success might mean walking away from a job you don’t enjoy – remember that doing so is a sign of emotional maturity, not weakness.

When properly supported, insecure overachievers can be a resource for any workplace. Unfortunately, at didlaw we too often see such individuals whose ambitions have been exploited by their employers, with sometimes lifelong consequences for their mental health. If insecure overachieverism resonates with you, take what steps you can to protect your health – and don’t be afraid to walk away from an environment that doesn’t recognise your value.

This blog was written by Kendal Youngblood, Solicitor at didlaw.