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'Insecure Overachieving' Yet Another Thing We Can Hate Ourselves for Doing

Lucy Liu and Zoey Deutch in ‘Set It Up’
Lucy Liu and Zoey Deutch in ‘Set It Up’
Screenshot: via Netflix

I have long considered “overachievers” to be the Type A sort of people who did the reading before class and know how to use their Google Calendars. But it appears there is a whole other kind of “overachieving” individual, one whose modus operandi is borne not out of innate perfectionism but the kind of miserable insecurity, fear, self-doubt, and self-hate that keep me and pretty much everyone I know awake at all hours of the night. Hello, it’s only Monday!

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According to the BBC, this brand of brown-nosing is dubbed “insecure overachieving,” as coined by Professor Laura Empson of the Cass Centre for Professional Service Firms in London and Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession. Empson describes “insecure overachievers” as people “who doubt their own worth, tend not to recognize their successes, and fear they’ll lose everything if they don’t exceed expectations.

Basically, insecure overachievers walk around with permanent imposter syndrome, believing that they don’t deserve their jobs/spots in school/awards/praise/families/love, and so they’re constantly working overtime—literally, emotionally, or otherwise—for fear of losing what they’ve got. For instance, as is the case with investment bankers:

People know that they are being directly measured against their colleagues. But because they don’t actually know how their colleagues are doing, they set themselves incredibly high standards, just to be sure. And because everyone in the system is doing this, the standards just get higher and higher, requiring everyone to work harder and harder.

For insecure overachievers, this pattern persists. During my research, a senior executive in a consulting firm described two colleagues, who “feel that I will say to them, ‘Sorry. You’re not performing. You have to leave’… So I say, ‘Are you crazy? Why don’t you go home earlier and think about your family?’ And they say, ‘No, no, no, no, I have to work.’” More junior employees see their leaders behaving in this way and assume that this is what will get them ahead. And so, the pattern is repeated and constantly reinforced.

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Overachievers, by definition, tend to overwork themselves to achieve success, but there’s something that feels more sinister about looking at overachieving this way. It’s healthy to fear failure, and to work hard to stop yourself from free-falling—if I weren’t propelled by that fear in some way, I’d probably spend all my time hiding on my couch watching Cheers until the credit card company came to put me in credit jail.

But the kind of insecurity that drives you to overachieve is like constant self-punishment, and if you keep moving your own goalposts, you’ll drive yourself insane. According to Empson, taking insecure overachieving to the extreme “can lead to serious physical and mental health problems, ranging from simple exhaustion to chronic pain, addictions, eating disorders, depression and worse,” so if you find yourself living in, say, constant fear of getting fired for small errors, Empson suggests recognizing your triggers and successes, and finding your way out of jobs that make you want to die. And I suggest panda videos—those little fluffballs make SO MANY life mistakes, and all of them are adorable! Watch this one, I felt very soothed. 

Night blogger, author of GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO PEOPLE YOU HATE.

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DISCUSSION

I stayed home today because I had food poisoning that had me up late last night vomiting and woke me for more quality time with the toilet this morning. I messaged my supervisor right away, but still had a panic attack that my colleagues will resent me and I will destroy position at work (especially since a week ago I had to time off for a severe chest infection).

That’s not true. My colleagues love me. I’m doing well and I’ve been promoted twice in 6 months. I am on top of my work; I have lots of leave available; I had no meetings I’m missing today; no one is relying on receiving work from me; I am genuinely ill and do not have a history of taking sick days just for fun or because I’m hung over; I have a history of overworking, in fact, to the point that last year I literally almost killed myself. I am a model employee and my colleagues, my supervisor and my boss all love me.

So why am I have a panic attack at taking a day off because I spent the night and morning throwing up.