The Curse of Being a High Achiever

woman at her laptop showing signs of burnoutWhere are my high achievers at? These are the folks that constantly knock their goals out of the park and make it look easy, whether they’re training for a marathon, dialing in their diet, or Marie Kondo-ing their house. They’re the ones who get the promotions, the bigger bank accounts, the smaller pant sizes…

We live in a culture that celebrates busy-ness. I’ve seen it manifest in my clients (they typically come to me in the post-crush-my-goals stage, once their nervous system is toast) but also in my personal life.1

As a curriculum director, health coach, fitness instructor, and small business owner, I’m indeed a high achiever, to the point of it being a real problem. I am physically uncomfortable in the presence of low productivity or what I often perceive in myself as “laziness”. I don’t settle for mediocre outcomes either. I will torment myself to produce nothing short of perfection, to the detriment of my mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Are You Born a High Achiever?

I wasn’t always this way. And there’s a good chance you weren’t either. Being a high achiever often goes hand-in-hand with people pleasing and perfectionism – all things you likely picked up as a kid.2 You might have been rewarded for straight A’s or gotten kudos after a game-winning goal. Maybe you had a parent or caregiver that was never satisfied or emotionally distant (which you mistook as unsatisfied). Or perhaps you learned that by achieving more, you managed to secure the love, safety, and acceptance of your family or caregivers.

In these situations, your self-worth becomes tied to your performance, meaning you’re only “good enough” if and when you’ve accomplished something exceptional. And even then, your inner critic probably doubts that it’s enough.

The Need to Always Do Better

What we’re really talking about here is fear. Fear that you need to continue excelling, producing, winning, and succeeding in order to not be rejected or lose the approval of others.3 It’s sort of a security blanket to make sure you’re safe and accepted, even if it’s only a temporary feeling.

That’s just one of the reasons it’s so exhausting to be a high-achiever. You’re always striving to do better for fear of decreasing your self-worth, constantly operating at 110 percent. The problem is, this amount of chronic stress takes a huge toll on the body and eventually leads to some sort of physical, emotional, or mental breakdown.4 Keep in mind this isn’t true for everyone. But for a lot of us, especially those of us with perfectionist tendencies, it’s quite accurate.


Pros of being a high achiever:

  • You always bring your A-game
  • You’re driven to get results
  • You’re highly motivated
  • You’re passionate about what you do
  • You’re competitive
  • You thrive on positive feedback

Cons of being a high achiever:

  • You hold yourself to perfectionist standards
  • You’re afraid of failing
  • You believe you’re only as good as your last accomplishment
  • You tend to overcomplicate things
  • You don’t take time to appreciate your successes
  • You’re prone to burnout

Burnout: How Crushing It Leads to a Crash

Research continues to prove that burnout is real – and that it’s more significant among high achievers and perfectionists.5 Recently classified as an official medical diagnosis by the World Health Organization, there are three indicators of burnout including:6

  • Feeling depleted or exhausted
  • Dissociation of negativity
  • Reduced efficacy

Not only that, evidence shows that burnout leads to dysregulation of the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — if this is you, you’ve probably already noticed the signs.7 Under normal conditions, when we perceive a threat or feel stress, cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) is released into the body. Once the stressor passes, cortisol levels go back to normal. But when stress becomes chronic and cortisol stays high, the body eventually compensates by downshifting cortisol production to abnormally low levels.

In this study led by the Netherlands’ Bart Oosterhold, researchers further investigated the relationship between HPA axis functioning and burnout symptoms.8 They looked at two groups of participants: one with a formal clinical diagnosis of burnout and one with symptoms but no formal diagnosis. Researchers analyzed saliva samples of all the participants and found that both groups had significantly lower morning cortisol levels compared with a group of healthy control subjects.

Why does this matter? Because low chronically cortisol levels can lead to cardiovascular disease, fatigue, muscle weakness, digestive issues, and the inability to “crush it” even if you wanted to.9

What You Really Want is Balance

I wholeheartedly believe you can achieve all of your health goals without creating more health challenges along the way. The key is to make your high achiever tendencies work for you, instead of against you. I do it by following a philosophy I call Hustle Just Enough. And you can too with these five strategies.

  1. Acknowledge your accomplishments. Most high achievers are so busy doing, they don’t even stop to acknowledge the thing they just did. We tend to race past the accomplishments we were working so hard to achieve because we’re already thinking about our next task or goal. Owning and appreciating the fact that you set a goal and reached it helps build self-confidence and self-respect. So, stop for a minute and think about some of your recent accomplishments. Better yet, write them down and keep a running list.
  2. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” If you’re programmed to always say yes, congratulations, you’re on the fast track to burn out. Steve Jobs said it best when he stated, “It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” When you overcommit (whether it’s because of fear or guilt, or maybe you don’t know how to say no), you’re valuing other people’s priorities over your own. Practice saying no to smaller requests and see what happens.
  3. Have a self-care routine. Rest days are just as important as the days you crush it. In the fitness world, insufficient recovery leads to overtraining syndrome. Same thing happens outside the gym. That’s why having a self-care routine is so crucial. Make time daily to meditate or do deep breathing exercises, go outside for a refreshing walk, laugh, call a friend, or do something with zero productivity value.
  4. Check in with your subconscious. High achievers often have thoughts that they’ll be seen as incompetent, despite their track record of successes. It’s a psychological phenomenon known as Imposter Syndrome and I’m no stranger to it. For instance, the other day I taught a one-hour yoga fusion class and spent 5 whole hours fine-tuning the playlist, the programming, scripting, and practicing my cues. Why? Because I was worried it wouldn’t be perfect. If Imposter syndrome is something you struggle with, you’ll want to read this article.
  5. Know you have a choice. Feeling like you don’t have a choice can exacerbate burnout. So, start to take back control of your life in small ways. Choose scrambled eggs over toast for breakfast. Decompress by going for a walk instead of staring at your phone. Or go to bed early verses watching another movie on Netflix. Remember that at any time you can opt for situations that support your overall mental, emotional, and physical health. Even if your situation can’t change, you always have the freedom to choose how you perceive it and how you respond to it.

5 Ways to Hustle Just Enough

Chronic crushing it often leads to a crash — one that can take years to recover from. So instead of pushing more, doing more, and forcing every aspect of your life, use these strategies to learn to adopt a hustle-just-enough mentality. And if you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to PHCI’s health coaches for one-on-one support.

  • Acknowledge your accomplishments
  • Don’t be afraid to say “no”
  • Have a self-care routine
  • Check in with your subconscious
  • Know you have a choice

Are you a high achiever? Tell me what you do to avoid burnout.

TAGS:  stress

About the Author

Erin Power

Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

If you have a passion for health and wellness and a desire to help people like Erin does, consider becoming a certified health coach yourself. Learn the 3 simple steps to building a successful health coaching business in 6 months or less in this special info session hosted by Primal Health Coach Institute co-founder Mark Sisson.

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