We live in a society increasingly fixated on success. With the rise of social media, constantly comparing ourselves to other people’s achievements has become the norm. Whether you’re scrolling through Instagram every day and seeing someone’s latest designs booming in popularity, or listening to people talk about their recent job promotion, the stakes feel high, and the pressure is on.
Definitions of an overachiever vary from “individuals who perform better than the norm”, to “individuals who strive to achieve or do more than they are expected to”. I argue that the latter is a more well-rounded definition. You can be an overachiever whether you come from a background of straight A’s or not. In my view, we should define it by one’s mental approach to work and success, and one’s ability to cope with any pitfalls and failures. And as our society becomes increasingly more career-driven, failure these days is feared by many – but this perpetual fixation on success can be a gateway to mental decline and unhappiness.
With that in mind, here are 13 signs that you might be an overachiever. Before I continue, I would like to clarify that this is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it define all overachievers. Most importantly, I want to distinguish overachievers from high achievers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with aiming high in life – the problem arises when your climb up the ladder begins to affect other areas of your life. If you think this might be you, it is time for some healthy self-reflection.
- You only care about the outcome
Your mind travels at a hundred miles an hour. Nothing else seems to matter but the deadline, or the final touches of that project you’ve been working on for months. If you’re on the more extreme end of the scale, you might spend a month in an anxious state, tearing your hair out over details and depriving yourself of sleep. Perhaps you neglect other things along the way – maybe you say no to that social event you’ve been putting off for two months, or let that pile of laundry grow bigger. Perhaps you grow impatient with your partner or your friends and start unintentionally taking the stress out on them. The resulting struggle with emotional management is frequently followed by feelings of guilt. You are so fixated on doing your best and getting the result you want, that you lose track of how many domino pieces you’re knocking over behind you. Being so intently focused on the future, you have a tendency to lose track of the ‘here and now’.
- You’re a Perfectionist
Nothing is ever good enough. You always want to do better, placing unrealistic expectations on yourself. You fear that the world will fall apart and everyone will think less of you if you do less than your ‘very best’. This is the biggest red flag – the ‘all or nothing’ attitude. When you don’t allow anything in-between, and you live your life like this every day, eventually it starts to catch up with you – you’re in a constant state of anxiety, always on edge, always thinking about the most minute details, and beating yourself up if something goes wrong. It’s a trap that’s very hard to escape.
Failure may scare you so much that you would do anything to avoid it. You may end up overcompensating in every other aspect of your life without even realising it. Ultimately, you might project this perfectionism onto other people – feeling resentful at times if someone doesn’t do something quite right, or if they’re not working as hard as you are.
- You’re a Workaholic
I learned the hard way that this is not something to be proud of. We may seem like the dream employees of any company, but truth be told we take on way too much all the time. You may take on extra work, and before long you will set that as your ‘baseline’, meaning that any less work will not make the cut. Perhaps you aren’t able to say ‘no’ out of fear you might disappoint others, and by extension yourself. This is a gateway to poor self-esteem. You need to be careful with that, particularly in your professional life. Not only are you affecting your mental and physical wellbeing along the way, but you might fall into the trap of ‘people pleasing’ – you will unintentionally signpost to other people that you are always willing to do more work, and before long, someone out there might use that to that advantage. It’s definitely not worth it. You need to put yourself first. The truth seemed harsh to me at the time, but I learned that the more respect I have for myself in my working life, the more others are likely to respect me in return.
- You are your own worst critic
“If the work is not good enough, then I’m not good enough” – ever tell yourself that? Do you feel like your success is directly linked to your self-esteem? Are you more likely to punish yourself if you don’t perform your very best, or worry what other people might think of you if you ‘fail’?
If you’ve been stuck in this state for a while, It’s likely that you are extra harsh of your work, never feel good enough, and push yourself to the extremes. It’s important to stop and build self-awareness around this unhealthy criticism. Acknowledging how much harm it may be doing to your mental health is the first step to tackling the problem. Realise that you’re putting more pressure on yourself than anybody else is around you.
- You want to be good at EVERYTHING
You’ve barely completed one project and you are already thinking about the next one, always seeking out new challenges. We all like a good dopamine kick from time to time, but if your pursuit for excellence feels like a never-ending train journey, you might be doing more harm than good. An excessive reliance on success may eventually cause you to beat yourself up every time something doesn’t go your way. Combine that with the withdrawals you might experience from not getting your usual dopamine kick, and your mental health can suffer greatly.
- Work feeds into your personal life
Is your climb for achievement constantly affecting other things in your life? Do you struggle to dedicate time for friends, family, even yourself? Are you finding that certain relationships are crumbling because of a lack of work-life balance? It may be time to take a step back.
Of course, this is not to say you have to abandon your academic or career goals in order to have a fulfilling personal life. Absolutely not. We’re talking about striking a good balance. Too much of anything isn’t good, and if other things in your life are suffering, then it’s likely a good indicator that you’re taking on too much. Try to evaluate your main sources of stress, as well as think about what it is that makes you truly happy. I find that journaling about these thoughts is a good place to start.
- You sacrifice your health
Constant stress forces your body into a chronic activation of the ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response. Your mind is always on the lookout for mistakes, failures, and traps. Perhaps you overanalyse or think about your to-do lists so much that it leads to sudden overwhelm and panic. Other days you might experience total shutdown and fatigue, finding even simple tasks challenging.
Constant stress impacts everything from your nervous system to your immunity. Just some of the physical symptoms of anxiety include chronic pains, tense muscles, increased heart rate, insomnia, restlessness, headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue. You may even get random days where you seem to feel very sick for no apparent reason. If you can relate to any of those symptoms, the answer to their cause might be closer than you think.
Whatever it is that’s stressing you out – be that a work deadline or a personal project you care about deeply – realise that nothing is more important than your health. And if you want to do your best, you need to take a step back from time to time.
- You have a short temper
When you’re always non-stop, it’s no wonder you may occasionally take that out on yourself, or others, when things get too much. Even a small inconvenience could be enough to tip you over the edge, because you leave literally no mental space to healthily process your emotions throughout the day. But emotions can’t hide forever. One way or another, you’ll find a way to release those emotions, and chances are you’ll express them in a toxic way. If this begins to impact others around you, that’s another red flag.
- You can’t relax
Do you ever settle down after a long day, perhaps with a book in your hand and a blanket wrapped around you, only for your mind to scream “I could be doing work right now”? Living with constant guilt over the simplest pleasures is a very common symptom for overworked and overachieving individuals. Even a short afternoon nap can come with a hefty price tag, taking the form of intrusive thoughts like “I’m lazy”, “I’m so unproductive”, “I feel useless”, etc.
- You’re burned out
No amount of sleep does it. You’re constantly tired. Little things tip you over the edge. You doubt yourself, feel helpless, unmotivated, perhaps lonely too. You have a negative outlook on things and nothing seems to bring you pleasure. You struggle to relax and have a good time. It’s all down to mental backlog. I like to think as dust accumulating on my furniture, to the point I can no longer see its original shine and colour.
- You can’t sleep
If you’ve been ‘on edge’ for a long time, chances are that even your rest time feels like work. It’s an accumulation of anxiety that your body is struggling to get rid of. This becomes a deadly cycle, because as studies prove time and time again, lack of sleep leads to decreased cognitive ability, and a reduced capacity for emotional processing. It’s enough to hinder our mind in dealing with the daily challenges and stresses of life.
- You’re addicted to fear
You get so caught up in this perpetual state of anxiety, suddenly it seems like the only way you will get to your end goal is by endlessly stressing yourself out. You might do this unconsciously, but the subsequent mental struggles are very real, and not something to be ignored.
- You don’t know you’re an Overachiever
Mental health issues often come with denial, at least to begin with. Being an overachiever may not sound like a big deal, but the cumulative strain on your mental and physical health is a real problem that needs to be talked about. It is touching more and more people every year, and if you feel yourself going down that slippery slope, it is important that you acknowledge it and seek help. Talk to somebody, whether a professional or a loved one you can confide in. What starts as a bit of innocent overachievement may soon lead to further mental conditions. This is why we must all take it seriously.