Are you a depressed superachiever?
‘Tiger mother’ Amy Chua was in the news again recently, writing about how her family had dealt with the controversy surrounding her book about Chinese parenting. In her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua had described how hard she had pushed her daughters to achieve academically.
While Western parents are probably less demanding, on average, than Chinese ones we do live in a culture that places a high value on achievement and success.
But while there’s nothing wrong in working hard and striving for success, when our self-worth is directly linked to our achievements there will be problems further down the line.
Being a superachiever is one way that people cover over their deeper insecurities and anxiety. British psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term ‘good-enough mother’ to describe a mother or primary caregiver who is sufficiently attuned to the baby or infant’s needs to make them feel secure.
The child of an insecure or depressed mother can grow up feeling fundamentally flawed and develop what Winnicott called a ‘false self’. This is a largely unconscious process in which the person develops an outer personality that they believe will win approval from others.
Often this false self is linked to achieving ‘success’ – being the best piano player, the top student, the most admired actor or the most altruistic charity worker. But the levels of achievement must be maintained, or else the inner feelings of emptiness begin to be felt.
Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller has highlighted how depression and grandiosity are often two sides of the same coin. She points out how children who grow up feeling emotionally empty, can become depressed, grandiose or a mixture of the two.
In her book The Drama of Being a Child she argues that depression and grandiosity are both defences against feeling the overwhelming pain of the loss of the self experienced in childhood.
She says: ‘The person who is “grandiose” is admired everywhere and needs this admiration; indeed, he cannot live without it. He must excel brilliantly in everything he undertakes…he too admires himself for his qualities – his beauty, cleverness, talents – and for his success and achievements.
‘Beware if one of these fails him, for then the catastrophe of a severe depression is imminent.’
This argument is echoed by US author John Bradshaw, who describes the ‘toxic shame’ he grew up feeling about himself: ‘Toxic shame creates “human doings”, people who must do to be okay. Only by accomplishment can they feel okay about themselves.’
A therapist working with a shame-based high achiever will attempt, over time and after gaining trust, to help the client get in touch with deeper feelings of sadness and anger. The more the individual can allow themselves to touch those raw feelings the more they can feel compassion towards themselves. The knock-on effect is a lessening of the need to impress others with one’s achievement.
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