Why Do Achievements Leave Me Feeling Empty?

Advice for unhappy achievers.

Posted Apr 08, 2019

 StockSnap/Charlotte L. Jones
Source: StockSnap/Charlotte L. Jones

To begin, a confession. My interest in writing for Psychology Today; to be considered a writer who merits wider attention; to be worthy of your time and focus and respect – all of those things are, at least in part, the acts of an Unhappy Achiever.

Of course your time and interest are worthy commodities, and I’m proud to have them. But your interest in this blog also makes me feel valuable as a person – more valuable than it should. It provides me a sense of self-worth that, by all rights, ought to be internally generated.  It provides me something I need.

To paraphrase the old “Hair Club for Men” ad: I'm not just the blogger, I'm also a client.

To be sure, my own therapy – like all good therapists, I've been a patient – has helped me resolve much of my once-urgent need to achieve. No longer do I feel driven to be a rock star, as I wanted so badly in my 20s (really!). But still: some of the old Unhappy Achiever remains.

I tell you all this because if you recognize yourself or your loved ones in my blog posts, I hope you can be as honest with yourself about it as possible. The least I can do is the same.

So let’s start here: What does it mean to be an Unhappy Achiever? How could achievement ever leave anyone feeling unhappy? Don’t we all want to achieve, to be the best at what we do?

Well, in this country, the answer is often yes. In a 2014 Harvard study of more than 10,000 students nationwide, a plurality named “achieving at a high level” as their most important priority – almost as many as those who told the researchers that their top priorities were “being a happy person (feeling good most of the time)” and “caring for others,” combined. This focus on achievement is reinforced everywhere in our culture: in the rise of social media “influencers,” in hip-hop lyrics, in advertising slogans, on Wall Street, and in our national obsession with athletes and celebrities.

Of course, many people have an entirely healthy relationship with achievement, wherein doing something well provides them a sense of fulfillment they can appreciate, rather than something they depend upon; satisfaction, not sustenance.

But for others, producing new achievements again and again is necessary for them simply to feel okay about themselves. And even worse, no matter how much they actually do achieve, it’s never enough.  They expect achievements to fill them up, but time and again, they’re inevitably left feeling empty. Over time this insatiable need to achieve can leave them anxious, depressed, even enraged. And it can leave them confused – because usually they don’t fully understand what's happening.  It’s a response that makes no sense on the surface. They’ve worked so hard for something, and now they’ve done it! If they cannot take a victory lap, thank the Academy, finally feel good about themselves, then what was it all for? They’re supposed to feel fulfilled. Why do they feel so hollow?

The answer is complicated, and certainly depends on each person's individual history.  But here's a start: if you learn early on that people value you for what you accomplish, not who you are, it's easy to start believing that you must achieve in order to have value at all. That makes achievements a terrible chore, not a lasting source of joy. Achieving becomes a necessity, a means of survival. And if you have to achieve just to have value, there is never time to stop and relax. Because as soon as you stop achieving, you stop being lovable.

It’s exhausting.

If you do something impressive, you have just enough time to take one deep breath. Perhaps to post a quick status update or an Instagram selfie (#bestlife #blessed #winning). Heck, you might even have enough time to pump a single fist. But then you have to start on the next pursuit.

If this experience sounds familiar to you, you are not alone. In fact, you are part of a group that is larger and more diverse than even I had appreciated. When I published a guest post on Psychology Today called “Are You An Unhappy Achiever?” I was surprised by the volume of responses I received from people all over the world detailing the countless ways they recognized themselves in the piece. So I decided to devote my new Psychology Today blog entirely to this topic that is deeply familiar to me, both professionally and personally.

If you feel empty even when you excel; if you feel drained when you charm others; if the pressure to achieve sometimes leaves you paralyzed and procrastinating; if you can never truly enjoy the gains you have made: this space is for you.

Over the coming months I’ll be exploring a wide range of issues faced by the people I’m calling Unhappy Achievers. These issues include the punishing seductions of social media; the dangers of a celebrity-obsessed culture which constantly exposes us to people achieving success beyond our wildest dreams; the deceptive appeal of perfectionism; the relationship between the need to achieve and procrastination; the anger that often roils just under the surface; and the kinds of steps parents can take to avoid raising Unhappy Achievers.

If you think you might be an Unhappy Achiever or love someone who is, I look forward to having you with me on this journey. I also invite you to reach out to me through my website (listed below) or in the comments, to join the conversation, share your own experiences, or suggest topics you’d like me to address.  

References

Weissbourd R., Jones S., Anderson T. R., Kahn J., Russell M. (2014). The children we mean to raise: The real messages adults are sending about values. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education.