Success requires hard work and a drive to succeed. In the case of high-powered professionals, some are able to embrace their accomplishments. Others, however, never feel good enough or worthy of their achievements, despite significant evidence to the contrary.
To the outside world, a professional with the trappings of success may appear to “have it all” – an adoring family, a beautiful home and the lifestyle to match. Others expect that, because of life successes, they should be happier and more fulfilled in life. But that’s not always the case. In fact, many high achievers are also silent sufferers. They are often so caught up in their drive to succeed that they don’t recognize they are stuck in a vicious pattern of trying to fill an emotional hole.
That feeling of never being good enough or love being conditional based on someone’s perception of success can lead these high achievers to beat themselves up emotionally and carry an overwhelming burden of critical thoughts. Many turn to alcohol, drugs or other unhealthy coping mechanisms, plunging themselves into a downward spiral. In this context, the drive to succeed can take a devastating toll on a person’s sense of self, relationships and overall well-being.
Changing the Narrative
A professional struggling to balance this drive to succeed and substance use must address both the mental health and addiction issues. To achieve a healthy, well-balanced life they need to create a new personal narrative. An overarching treatment and recovery plan to this new narrative will help these executives:
Explore their family background and their life story. For many, this pathological drive to succeed stems from their upbringing. For many, they were made to feel they would never measure up to their parents’ or society’s expectations. They’ve often internalized a lot of negative messages about themselves and their perception of the world around them is skewed. For example, they may have been criticized by a parent or the parent, withheld affection if a household chore wasn’t done perfectly. They may have been constantly compared to siblings or other children and told that they should have scored that run, been selected as the lead in the school play, gotten the A instead of the A- or just been a little thinner.
Believe or not – even these type of comments over time can profoundly shape a child’s worldview and leave them feeling that nothing that they do is ever enough. This early experience of love being conditional based on a parent’s notion of “success” can become integral to that child’s sense of survival. They can literally experience it as fight or flight -- a matter of life and death. This drive to succeed may appear to garner them success in life, but ultimately can also be their downfall if it’s not addressed.
- Help them recognize and appreciate themselves. It helps to step back and take a hard look at their accomplishments and also share the tales of how they aspired and achieved. Often, this is the first time they are able to see clearly that they have done amazing things. However, it’s also important for them to feel that they are “enough.” They must understand that they don’t need to constantly prove they are worthy – instead they deserve love and respect just for being themselves.
- Reevaluate the values inherited from their family and their notion of success. Anyone suffering with these issues must take a deep dive into the values they grew up with and decide whether they should continue to ascribe to them. A lot of times, the answer is “No.” For example, an executive might feel that he is only worthy if they make a certain amount of money and holds a powerful title in the workplace. By re-examining values, he may realize that it is just someone’s opinion and that he is just as worthy if he makes a fraction of that amount or moves into a different career. He may place more emphasis on volunteering or spending quality time with loved ones. People often discover the metrics they previously used to define their identity no longer support their health, happiness and satisfaction with life.
- Externalize. A critical element of treatment is to help these individuals understand that everything is not about them and that they can’t control all circumstances and situations. So, if the markets are down, the markets are down, right? There’s a lot of things beyond their control. Unfortunately for someone who doesn’t feel good enough or capable, they bear an unrealistic burden that they should be able to make it just right. Another example is an executive who sends an email to her boss or client and if she doesn’t get a reply in 24 hours, she can’t stop obsessing about it, feeling like she must have done something wrong. As part of treatment, she would work on how to externalize (the issue is the issues, I am not the issue), get “right-sized” about it, allowing her to let go and move on.
- Reprioritize. When executives first begin treatment with us, we will often ask them to rank or list what is most important in their lives. Usually work is numero uno. Over time, as they shift the narrative and create a renewed sense of purpose, they will often change their priorities. Towards the end of treatment, they often put relationships higher on the list, along with health, well-being and philanthropy. Instead of being hyper-focused on career-driven success, they are redirecting their energy into other forms of success, such as relationships with loved ones and activities that support joy and meaning in their lives. In essence, they are redefining what it means to be successful and moving from self-actualization to legacy.
Many professionals struggle with feeling “never good enough.” However, if it starts to affect their mental health, or propel them into coping with alcohol or drugs, it’s time to pause and address these issues before they do irreparable damage. If they understand why they feel this way, they can learn to let it go and not let it define them. Professionals can learn to feel “good enough” as they are and still lead successful lives.
By Jonathan Elias