The Success Treadmill

Dear Inadequate Graduate,

I, like many of my classmates and the people I surround myself with, tend to be a high achiever. I always aspire to do the best work, I’ve received awards and gained notoriety with my colleagues and professors, and am known as the ‘psychology expert’ amongst friends and family. One would think that I feel pretty proud of my accomplishments, but I’ve noticed that the more I succeed, the worse I feel. Furthermore, I can’t stop achieving because I’m worried that if I do, others will consider me to be a fraud or worse, they won’t consider me at all. I don’t think I can keep up this dizzying pace, but a big part of me feels that my entire existence is wrapped up in what I do. I fear that if I stop doing, I’ll stop being, and either outcome of continuing or not continuing on this treadmill feels unbearable.


Dear Losteitherway,

I’m so glad you wrote in about this topic. As you pointed out, many high achievers have fallen into this trap of “Do More. Be More,” but sadly this adage often results in the opposite outcome. Many times, the need for constant achievement or continual success is a veneer to a shaky or damaged sense of self, and one assumes that if his/her/their insecurities are covered with gold-plated accolades and a sparkling resume, people won’t be able to see what is hidden underneath. This assumption extends to many professions, and the need to push on and rise higher becomes addictive, while the risk of crashing feels all the more terrifying the farther one climbs.

The truth is at some point on this treadmill, a crash is inevitable because the allostatic load becomes too intense and our body, our mind, and/or our soul will seek the rest it needs that we are not providing. If we don’t find a way to nourish ourselves, we will eventually encounter a breakdown – a risk that you seem to be worried about. This is a good sign! Attuning to your internal experience and recognizing the pattern that is forming is the first step. The step next is to take action and reach out to someone who cares not about what you do, but who you are apart from the high-achiever or expert-status. Getting in touch someone who validates your true worth and inner gifts, no matter what external mountains you climb, will be a necessary pause from the success treadmill. Other outlets that can have a similar impact are developing a yoga/meditation practice, indulging a hobby, or engaging in ‘play’ that balances your serious and intense energy with something light-hearted. One caveat, however, is to make sure that any new activity or practice you introduce does not also become something that you must master. You do not have to succeed at decompressing. Just decompress.

I also encourage you to read about success neuroses, which describes an impending sense of doom one has the more one achieves. Success neuroses has deep roots, both historically and psychologically, and implies that an individual unconsciously associates achievement with the threat of abandonment or punishment. Ultimately, despite being a high achiever success neuroses can inhibit someone from enjoying his/her/their accomplishments, or induce self-sabotaging behavior which could manifest across numerous life domains.

Do yourself a favor take some time to examine about how a fragile self-concept or success neuroses might apply to your situation, and think about finding a trusted person with whom you can discuss these ideas in detail. I hear that right now you feel either outcome of your current track feels unbearable, but if you can pause and reflect, you will find that other outcomes are possible.

I know this is be hard to believe given your fears, but remember that however things turn out,

You. Are. Enough.


The Inadequate Graduate


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