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  • Jeannie Lawrence MD

The Road To High Functioning Depression Is Paved With Gold Stars:

When being a HIGH ACHIEVER leads to depression

If you're a high achiever, chances are you've earned a lot of gold stars in your life.

You know, the little gold foil star-shaped stickers you got from your grade school teacher every time you scored the best test grade in the class, were the best behaved, or earned some other esteemed childhood honor.

People saw something "special" in you your whole life. You were going to grow up and achieve great things, all the adults said. Your achievements earned you acceptance, and even admiration. And like any human, you thrived on this. With every accomplishment you were determined to accomplish even more the next time. The self esteem boost and external validation that comes with being a good student can become addictive.

You went on to college, probably on a scholarship, chose a challenging major and graduated with honors. And you didn't stop there. You pursued advanced degrees, chose a challenging profession and earned your way to the top. More gold stars for you.

But now that the applause has quieted, and you’ve settled into your mid-adult life, with all it’s mundane-ness, you start to feel the nag. That unsettling feeling that there’s something “more” out there for you to do, achieve, become. The life you worked for with the nice job, house, cars and vacations don’t feel special enough. Your achievements peaked in school, and maybe you haven't continued accomplishing new, gold star-worthy things. Or perhaps you have continued to achieve, but as soon as you accomplish a goal, the high quickly wears off and you're on to something new. The gold stars are never enough. Each new gold star just makes you want another, hoping that with the next one you'll finally be happy.

You're wondering, Well what's wrong with being a high achiever? Is there really a problem with setting my sights on new goals?

Not necessarily.

The problem is that because your accomplishments and self-esteem have become closely connected with validation from others, and external markers of success, you, like most high achievers inadvertently internalize the following belief:

My achievements make me a worthwhile human being.

The assumption that follows is:

If I don't achieve great things, then I am not a worthy, or good enough human being.

You may balk at this. I know you probably don't go around thinking to yourself "my achievements make me worthwhile...without my achievements, I am nobody".

But you may justify your quest for more achievements by saying things like:

I just want to live up to my highest potential.

I just want my (children, colleagues, community) to look up to me.

I just want to live my best life.

Those thoughts seem innocent enough. But the unintentional subtitle is: I’m not good enough as I am. My life isn’t good enough as it is now.

Answer this question:

How would you feel about yourself if you had not achieved the things you already have? If you didn't have the degrees, the career, the home, cars or even family that you've built? And what if you didn't achieve another gold-star worthy thing for the rest of your life? What if in this life you couldn't be a doctor or lawyer, a business owner and homeowner, a top earner, a mother, leader or boss? What if all you could be in this life is you, without the titles or achievements or holdings? How would you feel about you?

If one of your core beliefs is that your worth as a human being is tied to the achievements you earn, you are uniquely positioned to suffer from depression at some point in your life. And anxiety too. You may argue that you're doing the right thing by holding to this belief, because you're maintaining high standards for yourself, and that these standards are what helped you become the accomplished person that you are. In reality, this belief leads to an endless pursuit for better, and more. And a life of disastifaction, devoid of real self acceptance, or peace.

If one of your core beliefs is that your worth as a human being is tied to the achievements you earn, you are uniquely positioned to suffer from depression at some point in your life.

Please make no mistake. When I say that measuring one's self worth by achievements can cause depression, I do not simply mean a sad mood. I am talking about developing all the signs and symptoms of clinical depression, with it's associated changes in energy, concentration, motivation, sleep, appetite, hopelessness and even thoughts of self harm.

It might play out something like this: A project fails or a goal you pursued doesn't materialize. Because your self worth is tied to how well you accomplish or achieve things, you automatically think negatively about yourself and your life. Instead of seeing that the project failed, you label yourself as a failure, a defective human being. You mood becomes low and irritable, you may lose sleep or sleep too much to escape the negative emotions you face. You eat or drink alcohol to distract yourself and soothe your emotions; or maybe you under-eat because you're so consumed with your negative feelings. You lose confidence in yourself, stop doing things you used to enjoy because you're afraid of more failure. You ruminate about what is wrong in your life and struggle to concentrate, as you are distracted from your present. You use all your mental energy fighting your negative thoughts and feelings and are left feeling drained. You know there is beauty in your life, but struggle to see it. Sometimes your mind goes to a dark place, in which you imagine you might be better off gone.

I will leave you with this gentle reminder, friend:

You are already good enough. Not because of what you've achieved. But just because you are you.

Unless you challenge your beliefs around self worth and achievement, and permanently disentangle the two, you may never find what you want the most: happiness.

We've got this!

Dr. Jeannie

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