Confessions of an Overachiever

Like “overweight” and “overwork,” “overachievement” implies “too much" and hints at dysfunction. 

by Ellen Resnick • Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

I had to make my little legs work hard to keep up with my older sister and her friend. I walked behind them each morning on the way to school because there was only room for two on the sidewalk, and they usually talked about stuff I wasn’t interested in anyway. We had only walked two blocks, but my fear was already mounting.  I didn’t know where it came from, but it usually settled in my throat, and then my forehead would tighten and begin to throb.

As we turned the corner, I caught a glimpse of the crossing guard ahead with her neon yellow vest. My response was instantaneous. It was as if she had raised a sign that said, “Go Home!” I quickly spun and ran as fast as I could, unable to stop the tears. My sister shouted my name, but I didn’t turn.

My face was wet with perspiration and tears when I rang the bell. The door opened, and I thrust my small body into my mother’s arms, sobbing, “I don’t want to go to school.” My mother was probably thinking, “Oh no, not again.” This had become a pattern: A few days a week, I returned home 15 minutes after my mother sent me off to kindergarten. She would calm me down, reassure me and drive me to school so I would get there on time.

When my mom asked me why I didn’t want to go to school, she got an “I don’t know” response or silence. But she could tell that I was tormented by something, a fear so powerful that even a new Barbie doll couldn’t make it go away. 

Years later, my mother told me how she scheduled a meeting with the school principal and my teacher, described my behavior, and pleaded with them to help her understand why I resisted going to class. My mother recalled the teacher’s certain response: “Your daughter is a classic overachiever who feels she needed to know how to read and write before she started kindergarten.”

This was the first time I was labeled an “overachiever.” While I’m sure my mother was relieved that my fears weren’t caused by bullying or other social issues, what she probably didn’t realize at the time was that the psychological impact of an overachieving mentality can be almost as damaging. In my case, my desire to get straight “A’s,” to do the best that I could at every endeavor brought with it self-doubt and an intense fear of failure that was sometimes crippling.

I’ve often wondered why I am so hard on myself. Why do I always need to perform perfectly and achieve excellence? What am I so afraid of? While we all behave in ways that reflect both genetics and environment, I truly believe that my overachieving nature is largely innate. Parental pressure was not the source of my problem: While my parents encouraged my sister and I to do well in school, they did not demand top performance. They only expected us to do our best. 

“Overachiever” is an interesting term. Some perceive it as the ultimate compliment, but like “overweight” and “overwork,” “overachievement” implies “too much.” It hints of dysfunction. But can you really achieve too much? Like “overconfident,” “overachieving” is too much of a good thing. My drive to excel brought me accolades, awards and prestigious jobs. I was proud of what my hard work had produced. But my achievements did come at a great cost.

My diligence in school earned me a place in an Ivy League university, which was gratifying, and made my parents proud since neither one had gone to college. When I entered as a freshman, I knew the competition was tough; I was going to have to work especially hard to maintain my academic record. Four years later, I graduated in the top 1% of my Wharton class, and my dad still talks about graduation day when he heard my name called out repeatedly for having received all sorts of honors and awards. But, and there’s a big “but” here, I agonized over every test, paper, assignment and presentation that got me there. 

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