Don’t let the dark side of overachieving rob your happiness.
Nothing explained my misery: I was five years into running my successful market research business, I had Fortune 500 clients, loyal employees, and was growing an average of 20% each year. I should have been happy given everything I had accomplished, but aside from short bursts of excitement from achieving goals, I just couldn’t find any sustainable joy. This had been the story of my life, whether it be sports, school or my career—I was forever striving for the next thing, the next goal, the next achievement. I’ll be happy when…I used to think. But the happiness never seemed to arrive, no matter what I accomplished. I was sick and tired of living my life this way and my insomnia had gotten so bad I knew something had to change, otherwise I risked becoming a liability to my own company.
Four years later, after extensive coaching, self-reflection, meditation, reading, journaling and various retreats, I now understand that I had been suffering from a sickness that I now call Achiever Fever.
Achiever Fever is the dark side of achieving—it’s the delusional state of mind we get ourselves into when we tie our self-worth and happiness to our accomplishments. Symptoms include: a constant need to prove oneself, frequent worry, an inability to stay present, comparison with others, fear of not living up to one’s potential and the over-use of food, alcohol, exercise, sleep or work to distract ourselves from our stress.
However, as I have come to learn, there is a cure. The cure does not diminish our abilities to achieve: in fact, it only enhances them. But just as importantly, the cure allows us to discover the joy and peace that is already in us to begin with.
If you think you might be suffering, here are five ways to break your fever:
1. The first, and in many ways most important step, is to recognize that you are feverish. Achievers tend to operate at a heightened level of busyness that keeps us focused on the external world. Our inner selves get ignored, our self-awareness decreases and we suffer in silence as a result. The suffering can only be dealt with when we acknowledge there is a sickness.
2. The next step, just like with any addiction (and many of us are addicted to achieving), is to tell someone you are suffering. This requires vulnerability and courage. Rest assured that most achievers are suffering from the fever, but most are too anxious to talk about it for fear of seeming weak. Owning it and naming it are critical.
3. Now it is time to get to know the voice in your head – the inner critic that natters away at you, the one that tells you are not good enough, smart enough, strong enough, caring enough or trying hard enough. We allow this voice to run our lives, keeping us in a state of self-doubt and feeling like we can’t get out of own way. This voice can be disrupted by questioning these irrational stories we tell ourselves. Do not accept the voice as truth. There are several systems of self-inquiry, such as Byron Katie’s The Work, that can transform our thinking and take away our fever. I speak more about this in my book, as well, The Achiever Fever Cure.
4. The only way we can truly experience joy is by being present, something that is difficult for future-focused achievers. Incorporating meditation into your life, even if it is only five minutes of deep breathing a day, will show you what it feels like to be present. You will be able to watch your inner critic at work and strengthen your self-awareness, both key in curing your achiever fever.
5. The ultimate cure for achiever fever is to learn to let go. This does not mean giving up, but rather giving in to the flow of life. Achievers like to be “in control” but all we are really able to control is our reactions to what comes our way. Our unhappiness comes when try to twist our life, and the people in it, to suit what we would like to happen. Instead, set an intention, create a plan, rest assured your work ethic will kick in and get out of the way. Remember that challenges bring gifts.