Can an overachiever ever recover from overachieving?

Burnout, anxiety and the “honour roll hangover” all face the Blair Waldorfs of the world when they enter the workplace. Is there another way?

Hero image in post
photo: Booksmart (2019)
Hero image in post
photo: Booksmart (2019)

Burnout, anxiety and the “honour roll hangover” all face the Blair Waldorfs of the world when they enter the workplace. Is there another way?

By Megan Wallace05 May 2023
12 mins read time
12 mins read time

Blair Waldorf, Spencer Hastings, Rory Gilmore - what do they have in common? Well, beyond being white, cluelessly privileged and having questionable taste in preppy fashion, they’re the Type A, overachieving archetype much beloved by frothy TV series targeted at teenagers. But these characters don’t just exist on our TV screens - they’re out here IRL, too. I mean, how could we miss them? Underslept and overstretched, they’re the girls colour-coding their revision notes, meticulously ironing their George at Asda school shirts and generally just doing the most: from captaining their school’s hockey team to starring in plays and, of course, dotting their As with enough *s to replicate Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Popular logic (and the “most likely to succeed” yearbook category, for our Stateside pals) would have us believe that there’s some kind of good grades-to-girlboss pipeline but that’s not always the case when school-era overachievers grow up. Because, it’s not always a straight path to success. The term “honour roll hangover” (coined by life coach Melody Wilding) describes a cycle of perfectionism, internal anxiety and career stagnation experienced by the all-A brigade who, happily adapted to the rigid rules and regular milestones of education, struggle with the problem-solving, self-conviction and adaptability needed to succeed out in the real world.

From my own experience – as the type of person who once got 99% in a mock exam, fingertips blue from having spent a week copying and recopying my course notes by hand – the above prognosis hits home, and hard. Brainwashed into thinking that the only key to progression was work, work and (you guessed it!) work, I actively swerved networking as a baby journo in my early 20s, thinking that schmoozing with editors in person was a waste of time. Looking back, I realise this has put me on the backfoot compared to my peers who just, you know, know people. After all, the recipe for success in the creative industries involves a huge dash of being out, being seen, and convincing all the right people you’re a good laugh.

"If I wasn’t reaching my goals, my negative self-talk went into overdrive; I was a failure, a waste of space, and not worth basic human happiness"

But, my own career failings aside, the most pernicious side-effect of being a teen overachiever has been an all-or-nothing attitude that’s been quite frankly disastrous for my mental health. If I was advancing, progressing, getting more money, better roles and being asked “when do you sleep?” multiple times a day, then things were fine. But if I wasn’t reaching my goals, my negative self-talk went into overdrive; I was a failure, a waste of space, and not worth basic human happiness.

Sometimes, this took me to some pretty scary places, emotionally. When I didn’t get into Oxford, aged 18, I spiralled into a depression that left me friendless, groggy, demotivated and incapable of enjoying anything, not even the musical stylings of my fave pop girlie Charli XCX. During my final year at university, I would look myself in the mirror every day and say that if I didn’t get a first-class degree, I would have to commit suicide because I’d be incapable of getting a job, would have to live at my mum’s forever, and would become that family member that people only talk about in hushed tones.

Even now, as a 26-year-old adult, I constantly get trapped in cycles of taking on too much work, because that’s the only validation I know, and promptly burning out, finding it physically impossible to type a single sentence - let alone the 5,000 words of overdue articles that editors are harassing me for in my inbox. In a way, through being less successful than my teenage self, who dreamed of being a Granta young novelist and marrying a soft butch sculptor by 25, ever thought possible, I have recovered from overachieving (it’s giving failure as praxis!). But, mentally, I’m still in the trenches - staking my entire worth on my work, actively cringing at myself for not having hit certain accomplishments, bashing out emails on my days off when I’d rather be snogging someone’s face off in a park. But is there another way? And where are my fellow overachievers in remission?

Teenage burnout and turning your back on the excess of success

Sometimes, I fantasise about all us formerly “gifted” adults coming together to sue Oxford and Cambridge for the collective emotional damage of years of being hothoused in order to gain an elusive entrance interview, only to be rejected and crushed. In the meantime, I’ll settle for being openly salty about my alma mater (full transparency, I did go for my MA) and rehashing our stories.

Like me, 25-year-old Anna’s* adolescent perfectionism came to a head during the application process for those two academic ivory towers. “I was an overachiever, always smart at school and then, when I was 11, I was noted as one of the only kids in my 2,000-student state school who might get into Oxbridge,” she recalls. “I was pushed relentlessly by teachers to the final stage interview, when it was between me and five others. I had no support, so naturally crumbled then had a total burnout, but, as a 16-year-old, I had no idea what it was.” After that point, her recovery from overachieving was swift and sudden. “I remember from then a switch just flicked: I can’t continue like this.”

For Anna, lapsing back into her formerly singular ambition just isn’t an option as an adult. “The goalposts haven’t just moved, they’re in another continent,” she says. “Having that kind of relentless, tough-on-yourself approach to things in adulthood is not just sufficient anymore, because unless you’ve got un-ebbing sources of money and resources, life is hard for the average person.”

“I feel so calm and at peace when I consider how small and insignificant my career and life goals are in the context of the mountains which have literally been chilling for tens of thousands of years.”

Even a girlboss needs a forehead kiss sometimes: harm reduction and overachieving

Anya*, a publicist in her early 30s, has a contrasting view. While she admits that there are plenty of downsides to pushing yourself to the professional brink, she doesn’t have any plans of stopping soon. “I don't think I have tried to stop or want to, if I am honest,” she explains. “It doesn't feel possible to get off the train at this point? It feels like all or nothing: I don't see how I could be satisfied with inbetween.”

Interestingly, she describes overachieving kind of like a drug, with an in-built rhythm of high-highs and crushing lows. “I can ride for months on end on a mixture of cortisol and dopamine hits from achievements,” she admits. “This can only sustain me for a period of time until I completely crash and burn and then need to rebuild. Thus the cycle continues again.”

While she’s not interested in changing her relationship with work and achieving, she has decided to adopt some harm reduction strategies. “I learn from each cycle about what worked and what didn't, and how I can better manage this compulsion to work and achieve,” Anya explains.

Nowadays, she’s also a big fan of reconnecting with nature - not touching grass, exactly, but rather marvelling at mountains. “I recently discovered my love of the mountains and how visually there are no triggers to bring me back to work. It's a completely blank canvas with just rock, trees and sometimes snow,” she says. “I feel so calm and at peace when I consider how small and insignificant my career and life goals are in the context of the mountains which have literally been chilling for tens of thousands of years.”

Boundaries, baby: how to recover from overachieiving

As Anya’s experience reminds us, a major part of overachieving is not having boundaries: you give too much to work, you give too much to other people, and you keep at it, even when you’re about to keel over from lack of sleep and are propped up by nothing but your office’s Nescafé Gold. So in my quest for the all-elusive cure to my predicament, I reached out to someone who knows a lot about boundaries: life coach and boundaries expert Michelle Elman.

As she puts it, there are plenty of reasons why a propensity for overachieving might develop - some of which are rooted in early life. “If the person grew up in a household where they only got attention when they were achieving or even if they were neglected and not given attention, it can be a way that a child attempts to get their parent's approval,” she says.

Low self-confidence (guilty!) might also play a role. “When someone lacks self-esteem, overachieving can also be a defence mechanism because the belief is if they do more, then they will be worth more. Then someone who was unable to form self-esteem from internal sources might also reach for overachieving in the thought that good grades and, later in life, job performance, will fill in the gap of where self-esteem should be.”

And according to Elman, one of the most difficult parts of overachieving and the reason why it ultimately isn’t fulfilling, is having to contend with arrival fallacy: the false belief that when you reach a goal, you’ll feel happy. “Anytime you repeat a behaviour over time, it will get more extreme,” she says. “More than that though, the overachiever will never be able to attain the approval they seek because whatever they do will not be good enough. An overachiever finds it really hard to praise any accomplishment they do and therefore that struggle to feel good enough will persevere.”

So what is the recommended solution to over-overachieving? Well, to begin, you should probably give yourself a break. “Start having proper ‘off’ time. When you clock off, make sure you are actually putting your work away. Turn off notifications on emails after a certain time and when you are Out Of Office, actually stop replying to people,” she explains. “You want to create a policy in your life where you are either 100% working or 100% off because if you are still checking emails on holiday, then you might as well not be on holiday.”

"An overachiever finds it really hard to praise any accomplishment they do and therefore that struggle to feel good enough will persevere”
Michelle Elman

It sounds obvious, yes, but it works. For Anya, implementing advice like this has been a game-changer. “I’ve been trying to manage my time more strictly: I try to stop working at 6pm every day when it's not completely insane. I also didn't work when on a holiday earlier this year, for the first time in maybe five years.” This, she explains, is part of a wider project to not let work define her life and to allow her body an opportunity to recharge. “Learning to let go of control is a part of this: just being present. It's the best way to reset.”

And, longterm, you need to face facts - this is not a fun way to live your one wild and precious life and it’s actually kind of a problem. “You need to recognise that overachieving is actually not about work, your career or that specific project you are worrying about. This is an overarching problem that is a result of your self-esteem,” Elman adds.

As Anna so succinctly puts it: “Overachieving is fucking exhausting. It’s also a really unattractive perfectionism and thing of always having to be right. You don’t give yourself an easy time.” That’s why, while she sometimes wonders how her life would be if she had her former work ethic, she has learned to accept herself and take life’s inevitable Ls without too much striving and overcompensating. “Try your best but don’t push it,” she says. “Some things aren’t meant to be, and that’s fine. Nothing is worth the loss of your sanity!”

Yep, Elman has some pretty sound advice. But whether or not you’re actually going to take these suggestions on board depends on the scale of the issue. Ultimately, if you do want to change but can’t seem to take any steps to make that happen, it’s time to stop struggling with all this on your own. You might benefit from therapy like CBT which can teach you healthier coping mechanisms and confront any unhelpful beliefs. In some cases, if you think that you work compulsively and no longer have control over that part of your life, a support programme like Workaholics Anonymous (which offers a 12-step programme and meetups, similarly to AA) might offer the help you need.

Trust the process - recovery is a journey, not a destination

Lastly, while I wish I could say that I’ve finally vanquished my inner, over-achieving critic, that voice is still there, negging me on and providing a constant Joan Rivers-esque takedown of my every career failing. I am, however, trying to chill the fuck out and counselling - while also helping with my other, myriad problems - has been integral to this.

I’m lucky to have a very iconic therapist, and the funds to pay her, who in one session read me out a poem (no, I do not remember who it was by) all about life and death, and about the things that we remember. The writer’s point was simple: it’s not the day spent typing away in an office that you hold dear. No, it’s the sensation of grass underfoot, the sun setting in the sky above, the feverish touch of a lover - you get the picture. And yes, that’s a pretty self-evident point but it did make me realise, I don’t want to be so caught up in my writing rather than out there sucking up all the juice that my life and the wider world has to offer.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that career-wise, I will never be the best. But one thing I can do is try to cultivate a life of joy, excitement and care for myself - one where I do answer the occasional out-of-hours work email, but I at least make time to stop and smell the roses.

*Names have been changed.

If you suspect that you are struggling with a mental health condition, you should book an appointment with your GP to discuss potential treatment plans. Anyone looking for shorter mental health support or to explore available information can contact the Mind infoline on 0300 123 3393.