The Emotional Burdens from Childhood That High-Achieving Adults May Carry

Yes, you can be a high-achiever, raised in a loving, caring family—and still be impacted with emotional burdens that play out personally and professionally in your adult life.  

It’s something I’ve seen time and time again: 

A client was raised by well-intended parents, where the most fundamental necessities of human survival were met—e.g. needing food, shelter, and clothing. There was safety, and you KNEW you were loved (as evidenced by all the dance and baseball games that were attended and supported). Still, there may have been an undercurrent of feeling unsafe to express needs and feelings, with fear of love being taken away. (What’s known in the therapy world as Maslow’s Hierarchy.) 

And yet, within achievement-oriented families—where there are inherent expectations for how a child is going to thrive and succeed in school, in extracricuulars, in order to be accepted into the best colleges, to set them up for success in life and a professional career, and so on—what happens is that as a kid, you start equating being lovable, and good enough, only when you’re succeeding. You achieve, you are worthy of love. Your EFFORT wasn’t necessarily acknowledged.

Fitting in, getting the highest scores, is what’s applauded—and yes, that often makes these high-achievers very successful in business as adults, because they strive to achieve. It also leads to perfectionism, the strive to be what people need you to be in order to be loveable and adequate.

High-Achievers Too Often Conflate Success With Self Worth

But achievement shouldn’t be conflated with self-worth. As individuals, we need to feel psychologically and emotionally safe without questioning our worth—even when we’re not accomplishing exactly what we want or thought we could, e.g. hitting those milestones, those benchmarks, those goals, in life and our careers.

Sometimes, well-intended parents don’t reward ALL effort on a child’s part, including the failures, which teaches them: “I’m lovable for really putting in the effort, and doing the work—even if I’ve made a mistake.”

Without that childhood experience, as adults, high-achievers often internalize disappointments and mistakes, with thoughts along the lines of: “I’m not lovable or good enough because I’m “failing at life” (in whatever capacity—my business partner’s frustrated with me, I don’t have enough time with my family, etc)—a high-achiever’s emotional burdens. They internalize it as shame. Shame is “I’m bad,” not “I did something bad.”

Whereas, a healthier perspective is to externalize, outsource the scenario—flip the coin on its head and try realizing instead: “This career move/relationship just didn’t work out/it’s not right for me” or perhaps troubleshoot, e.g. make a roadmap for how you can gain more experience, skills in this area, and try again. 

Rather than questioning your own abilities and self-worth, in case someone never told you: It’s about putting your best effort in, and that’s what matters. 

Consequences of the Emotional Burdens of High-Achieving Adults 

The emotional burdens of high-achieving adults all too often can spiral into imposter syndrome, second guessing themselves, hiding or otherwise procrastinating when they don’t have an answer, or experience paralysis by analysis (because they’re afraid of making a mistake). 

They may become hyper-productive in order to max their feeling of inadequacy—which is a sure path to burnout, and can be damaging to our personal and familial relationships. These emotional burdens can create false narratives: I didn’t get that promotion/asked to join a high-profile project/because I’m not good enough—when that’s likely not the case at all. 

If the struggles or feelings of inadequacy are arising from a personal relationship, it’s not uncommon for high-achieving adults to throw themselves even deeper into their successful, professional endeavors—where they’re being rewarded at work for being competent, successful. But that’s clearly not the right answer, either. 

Eventually, we all make mistakes—when you’ve built your self-worth around being successful and high-achieving; striving for perfection at work or in our relationships in order to be lovable and good enough—when the house of cards falls—it’s devastating. 

Slow Down and Consider the Other Possibilities

Everything in life is scaffold knowledge, and our childhood years are our foundational years. Even being raised by well-intended, loving parents, when the emphasis is on achievement—rather than rewarding the effort, no matter the outcome—a child’s and adult’s self-esteem comes from a totally different place. 

Mistakes trigger feelings of “I’m a failure,” when mistakes are nothing of a reflection of our self-worth—in fact, mistakes are quite often some of the best opportunities to learn and grow. 

Yes, it possible that this individual no longer wants to date you/marry you; it is possible that you’re being undermined at work, being taken off a project, a team, or not given the promotion, etc. These are not irrational thoughts—but there are other possibilities, too. 

—Before approaching a difficult conversation, slow down and evaluate, “What are the other possible reasons for [XYZ scenario]?” Taking a more rational approach will start to change your mood and neutralize your emotions, which makes it easier to have an open conversation that’s emotionally measured, honest, and vulnerable.

—Ask for clarity, to make sure you’re on the same page. Lead with, “The story that I’m telling myself is …” or ““I don’t know if this is true, but I’m feeling hurt because when you… [XYZ scenario].”

—Coming from an open and more vulnerable place helps the other person to not feel as if they’re being attacked, which means they can show up for you as best they can—openly and honestly, too. And that is where REAL connection begins. 

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