Josh Dodes LCSW

Unhappy Achievers

Status: Feeling Empty

Why social media can be seductive and dangerous for Unhappy Achievers.

Posted Aug 19, 2019

Avi Richards/Unsplash
Source: Avi Richards/Unsplash

When Micah came in for his weekly session, he was still typing on his phone. He apologized and said he just had to finish a quick post. He sounded excited about it, but I noticed his jaw was clenched. Once he was done, he collapsed onto the couch, exhaled heavily and smiled.

“So, you know the new drawings I was telling you about last week? Well, I’ve been posting them on Facebook so my friends can see them. The reaction’s been amazing!” He knew and wanted to tell me exactly how many likes and shares he'd gotten so far. 

“That must feel really exciting,” I said. 

“It is! I mean, it should be, right? I guess...” He trailed off. There was a long silence, and when he raised his eyes to meet mine, he now looked confused and defeated. Shaking his head, in a near-whisper, he asked a question I had heard him utter many times before: “So why do I feel so goddamn empty?” 

It was exactly the right question.

In an earlier post, I described the population I call "Unhappy Achievers." These are people who need to achieve, again and again, simply to feel okay about themselves. Typically this pattern is the result of learning early in life that your value comes from what you accomplish, rather than who you are. The need to achieve in order to be worth anything at all—and ultimately, to be worthy of being loved—often leaves people wrestling with lifelong feelings of anxiety, sadness, even anger.

After all, who wants to have to jump through one hoop after another just to be loved? Like so many people I see, Micah is a lifelong member of this group. And like so many Unhappy Achievers, Micah’s relationship with social media is particularly complex and often painful. 

Social media can be a nearly irresistible temptation for Unhappy Achievers, who typically lack a sturdy, internally based sense of their value as a person. Earning a positive reaction online is an easy and seductive shortcut to praise, and thanks to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, a quick hit of external validation is often just a click away, at any time of the day or night. Those likes and shares Micah mentioned? They’re like a scoreboard for some Unhappy Achievers.

But these quick hits offer correspondingly small returns, especially compared to the overwhelming sense of emptiness that inevitably follows. That’s part of what makes them dangerous. A successful business meeting or concert might hold you over for a couple of days. But when you post a status, comment on a friend’s feed, or tweet something clever, the resulting sense of being valuable does not last nearly as long. So you have to keep going back.

As Micah discovered in my office that day, it’s incredibly easy—and incredibly exhausting—to get sucked into the back-and-forth of performing and checking people’s reactions to your performances. Instead of feeling better about yourself in a lasting, internalized way, you can end up in a cycle of endlessly waiting and watching to see if you're being validated.

Of course, social media levies another painful cost, as well: Because these apps lead us to ceaselessly compare ourselves to others, they can be especially poisonous for Unhappy Achievers. When your value is based on your achievements, the “endless scroll” of your peers’ curated and seemingly perfect life moments can be destabilizing. People lucky enough to have a steady, internal sense of their own value can be happy for their college classmates announcing their companies’ IPOs or posting pictures of their expensive Hawaiian vacations. But if you’re keeping score like your life depends upon it, it can be awful. 

I can’t count the number of times clients of mine have confessed feelings of envy and even rage at other people’s accomplishments online. Often, these feelings are initially disguised as disdain (“Isn’t it disgusting that they’d show off like that?”) or apathy (“Not that I care or anything”). But scratch beneath the surface and the feelings are invariably red and raw. 

Sure, there is wisdom in the expression, “Don’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” But that is far easier said than done. Since Unhappy Achievers focus so heavily on their outsides, they routinely have the sense, even if they can’t yet explain it, that their internal lives are empty. When you feel that empty inside, it is especially painful to see how full everyone else’s lives look. 

So what is an Unhappy Achiever to do? 

One short-term answer, of course, is to take a break from social media. Unsurprisingly, many of my clients have resisted this idea at first, because they’ve convinced themselves that they can find a way to enjoy the upside of external affirmation, without the downside of emptiness and self-punishing comparisons. (Spoiler alert: they almost never can.)

Ironically, some people even resist hitting the pause button on their social networks because they don’t want to tell people why they’re taking a step back, as the decision itself feels like a devastating admission of weakness in a world where everyone else seems fine. And yet, I have yet to hear a single Unhappy Achiever tell me that they regretted the time they forced themselves to stay off social media. 

Ultimately, though, there is no shortcut to improving your internal sense of self-worth. This deeper work requires exploring, sitting with, and emotionally processing how achievement came to play such an outsized role in your sense of self, and learning to cultivate and trust a deeper, sturdier sense of your internal value—regardless of who is watching or hitting “like.” 

In a future post, I’ll get into considerably more detail about how psychodynamic therapy can help address these issues in a longer-term way. But for now, it is sufficient to say that by recognizing the forces that drive you repeatedly back to social media, you can begin to develop a greater sense of freedom. Not just from the tyranny of social media, but from the self-doubt and the feelings of emptiness that arise whenever you seek the praise of others. The result may be that your status—and your life—feel considerably less empty.