Chasing certifications can be a symptom of High/Over achievers...tips to let go (& appreciate you!)
Updated: Apr 29
As part of my personal development, I've started a course in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), and one of the first metaphors they used to demonstrate how emotional baggage, critical voices, and rigid childhood "rules" or "strategies" can distract us is "the Folder Metaphor"...try it with me:
Imagine in the folder are all the fears, worries, stressors - the "I'm not good enoughs" the imposter syndrome and hold it in front of your face.
You KNOW things are going on around you but you can't engage with them because you are holding the folder.
Even though the folder is light, because you are always "pushing it away" your arms are getting tired.
...now, for a moment, put the folder down in your lap...it's still there, but at least you are freer to engage with other things that may bring you pleasure.
ACT is not about removing the stressor, but learning to grow alongside it...and as you grow, it is likely that elements of the stressor may be reduced anyway, but those emotions are not holding you back.
The "high/over achiever adaptation"
Physician cure thyself - the course encourages you to self-reflect, and I noticed immediately that not only do I carry a folder of "You're not of value unless someone else says so"...BUT my form of "pushing it away" is not simply holding it up as a defence, it is filling it with qualifications. I have joked to my student classes that I "have more titles than Daenerys Targaryen" - because that is my way of trying to stop the voices...prove my worth over and over again.
I recommend the book "They F*** You Up" by Oliver James who talks about "Parental scripts" and how, even before we develop as individuals, we are placed into a "drama" which our parents have penned...our name, according to James, is even a part of that. With some families, as we grow, our personalities may be welcomed, encouraged and shaped; in others they remain supressed (often because of the needs of our parents) - and we may require intervention such as "inner child" work or other forms of therapy - including ACT - to work through that feeling of success...but on someone else's terms.
For me, the first of my "achievements" were very much "road mapped" by what my parents wanted (I managed a few of my own - I persuaded my mum to let me start drama classes - and because I was better at that than dance, I was allowed to continue...alongside dancing, roller dance, cello, tennis, trampolining...many of which I was only allowed to stop when I'd shown I was genuinely terrible.) I'm grateful for the opportunities my parents gave me - failure was not an option, and in some ways I became "passable" at a number of things, and certainly learned how to work hard even if I was clearly not naturally skilled in an area.
A lot of my qualifications - save my degree in psychology - were very much related to what I thought my parents wanted...I took a Masters in the History of Science (because it was at Imperial College...my parents knew it was a good name...despite my Psych degree from UCL!!), then pivoted to Law and eventually Teaching, the latter of which I did largely enjoy. It was only with the opportunity to do a funded PhD that I was able to present my parents with a "fait accompli" - I'm leaving teaching to do this... that I started to break free...at the age of 32!!
BUT, the need to keep proving myself was still there...and probably residually still is - and my "folder" is a lever arch that now needs a volume 2...and yet my biggest fear is that I'm still not good enough.
Ways to set the "folder" down
Now, many people in the same position as me will probably find, actually, achievements aren't bad things to have, they will have taught us a lot, and in turn we have become extremely accomplished...BUT the "need" to continue adding to the folder (just to stop the voices), AND the fact that we'll never please everyone/someone will say something mean/we won't ever be "all knowing" in any one area, is a double edged sword. It's wonderful to keep learning, but gosh it's tiring!!
- Substitute achievements/Personal Wins for things YOU value: One way of finding a little personal balance may be to turn your ability to achieve into the field you want to have the recognition in. For me it is writing. Rather than get 3 more PhDs I worked to find a publishing house, my editor took a chance on me, and 3 books later, I'm proud to call myself a "Pearson Author".
- Ask yourself BEFORE chasing your next "achievement" (or "challenge" as we call them ;) ) - IF I go with this, where is it going to lead me? This is an adaptation of the question that ACT therapists may ask "If you go with that thought, where will it lead?" (To stop you going down a negative spiral) - High/Over achievers CAN DO most things...and because they are driven to complete them (they don't give themselves permission to "fail"...or even stop sometimes!, they will find a way, even if it takes ages). I now ask myself - Do I have "ages" to devote here - just for a little hit of dopamine that will quickly fade? Or more practically, you could ask - Do I have the finances to devote here?; or even "Why am I actually being drawn towards this?" (if you are able to get to the root...my second "hot thought" to use a CBT term, is "Because I want to feel liked...and if I do it, people will like me"...what I've learned is, like dopamine, "like" can be very short term!)
I still take on challenges - this year I'm swimming for both Diabetes UK and Level Water, and I even walked on fire...but those are just for me!! (And already I've noticed that I struggle to fit the swim training in...learning that the reality is I don't have "ages" to devote!)
- Ask yourself when you feel compelled to do something - "Whose voice is that?" ACT would suggest you work to separate the thought or drive from yourself through:
Leaning into the thought for a moment eg "I'm not good enough"
Adding the phrase "I'm having the thought that..." (I'm not good enough)
Adding the phrase "I notice that" (I'm having the thought that I'm not good enough)
...and once you recognise it is a thought you can begin to question - who put that thought there...you may even trace it back to an event or an experience...but it is likely to be something which perhaps is NO LONGER in your current reality.
- In the moments you have set the folder down - be present with the joy of what it allows you to see: There WILL be moments...usually a point in between achievements, where you can stop for a moment and (yes, be proud of what you've done yadda yadda...but many high/over achievers don't really like that or find it pushes them faster into the next thing!)...but see if you can find other things in your landscape that engage you. For me I like to read books, and I like to spend time with friends - if I can, abroad. Yes my brain may still be working on "How I can utilise this experience" (my husband has even said to me "Our relationship is ours, it's not for your profile!") - BUT on the one hand I notice that the elements I'm driven to "brand" are things I truly love (eating is one!!), and on the other, there's an enjoyment that comes from doing some things for the sake of doing them...and I like that feeling...and I'm working to experience it more!
- Use the "out of office" and set your boundaries: You are also likely to be driven by a desire not to let others down (sort of mixed with a fear that if you don't do it, someone else will, and they'll be better than you!!) On the latter...if that's how fickle people are, then perhaps you don't need to cultivate that relationship OR we may simply have to accept that "being the best" is only going to be "the best in that field, in that location, and may also need a rapport with the client!!"...there's room for ALL of us. However, being pro actively clear about your availability (eg. "I'm away from..."; with a sign post eg "please contact..." can stop you needing to check in and responding, which can lift quite a big emotional burden of "But I must...")
- Affirmations can help - but they may not be the "usual" ones: I do use the "conventional" affirmations which I love as part of meditative practice; BUT I have a few just for me, and maybe they are reminders rather than affirmations:
- If you were in the toilet/on a plane/in a meeting you wouldn't answer immediately
- You can't save people from themselves
- You cannot control people's reactions, but you CAN choose who you'd like to see react!!
...maybe they'll help, maybe they won't but I like them.
I know this is part self-reflection and part "This could help" - but it also comes from recognising that sometimes the conventional methods don't work, and it's about knowing yourself and what is going to get you setting down that "folder"...or at least closing it for a while so you have the freedom to taste the joy all around you. If this resonates and you have your own approaches, I would love to hear from you - and even better - do so while we're both not carrying files around to distract our focus!!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt