The bay area has concentrated some of the most talented, intelligent, and high-performing people in the world. Often when people call me for therapy they are in that high-performing group. They often hesitate in the initial consult because they believe in many of the myths about high-performing people and about therapy. About high-performing people they believe that they are independent and self-sufficient, and that they don’t make mistakes, or need therapy. So when they come to therapy, they hesitate to come in for help at first because they are used to upholding that myth about themselves and about other high-performing people. They also believe in myths about therapy like that it is for people who are broken, or desperate, or mentally ill. Yet the number of thriving therapists in this area with a concentration of high-performing people suggests that at least one of these sets of myths must be false. So, I’m going to pull back the curtain on these myths by identifying some of the most common issues that I see among the high achiever in my clientele: anxiety, relationship challenges, a first setback, or development.
The myth high-achieving people have about anxiety is that they shouldn’t have it or that it should be under control. The reality is that their anxiety has served them and their career may even be encouraging anxiety. In therapy we can find other more sustainable ways to fuel a positive feedback loop for success while reducing the ancillary suffering that is cause if anxiety is the fuel.
Many people with the drive to be high-achievers build an expectation for themselves of ever-rising success. In fact, some of them have never experienced a significant failure. They have found themselves propelled into situations of increasing responsibility, not just for themselves and their own success but the success of their team, their product, and then their shareholders, investors, or a whole company. When you have had a rocket-like career trajectory the fast pace, the demands, the staggeringly fast changes from concept to product launch, from start-up to IPO, or from untouchable golden-child to a career crash and burn can be shocking, disorienting, and can rock the foundations of identity.
The clients who come to me for therapy for anxiety issues have often experienced multiple changes, identity or role confusion in their companies, demands for work pace or perfection that aren’t sustainable, and more. One thing that often happens is that because the person’s abilities really are phenomenal, when faced with what would for most people be an impossible task, the high-achiever doesn’t admit that possibility. She or he just identifies what it will take to make it happen. The ensuing lack of sleep, loss of relationship, loss of perspective, coupled with the accolades of a shower of money for success, high-compliments, and further expectations for even more results in the future can all become fuel for anxiety.
Eventually, the highly-successful person may begin to experience anxiety for a number of reasons. They may have simply experienced so much stress for so long that they don’t find it easy to calm down. They may fear that they have been a fake all along and the next task will be the one that reveals that they really aren’t as smart or skilled as the world-class peers next to them. They may have attached so much identity to their habit of success that the risk of failure threatens the core of their understanding of who they are. Or, simply, they may have become successful because, like many successful and intelligent people, they have adaptive and beneficial obsessive or compulsive tendencies and those tendencies have recently begun spinning more out of control. This is far from an exhaustive list but it reveals that there are a lot of possible ways that a high-demand career and a high-achieving personality can ignite a positive feedback loop of anxiety and success.
The myth high-achieving people have about their relationships is that if they are high-achieving in one domain of their life (i.e., career) they will be high-achieving in other domains as well (e.g., relationships). The reality though is that high-achievement in any domain takes practice and expertise and relationship therapy can provide the tools and practice to become more expert in the relationship domain.
One characteristic of high career achievement and advancement is the willingness to single-mindedly pursue a goal. Anyone who has completed graduate school knows that it is important at certain times to sacrifice body, sleep, healthy food, healthy exercise, and even relationships with partner or kids to surmount the next hurdle. Now take that same pace of demand, concentrate it, attach to it the promise of huge amounts of money, and put that cycle on perpetual repeat. . .that is work in Silicon Valley. No wonder so many companies call their sites a campus.
I want to identify two ways that I have seen this work pattern interfere with relationships. First, from an attachment perspective quantity of time together is essential for there to be high quality attachment. In my experience, when a client works more than 60 hours per week, there is little chance that they have much energy left afterward to give to their relationships. Most of the time, when they come home, they simply try to refresh their energy and attention stores. Maybe they have a little left over for kids but for partner and sex, the likelihood is small. Yet, beyond that, I have worked with clients who work 80 or even 100 or more hours a week for some periods of time. What I have seen is that the more hours a person works over 60, the more and more hyper-focused they become. If at 60 hours per week the high-achiever has less to give to their partner, it becomes increasingly likely that by 80 hours of work per week they are actually demanding more from their partner. Unable to sympathize, the mission to complete the next work hurdle becomes the only thing they can see. Much more work than that and the person on my couch feels to me like a walking zombie. They have a very difficult time connecting to me as a person, sometimes even talking and following a conversation thread with them becomes a challenge.
Another aspect of this ability to sacrifice single-mindedly for a purpose is asynchronous personal development. That is, the person in the relationship may be a world-class expert in software whizz-gigs or business howsie-dos but the expertise to develop a long-term relationship remains in an earlier stage of development. In the meantime, the partner, especially if they are not working in the tech industry, may be developing relationship expertise all the time by relating to friends and community members and filling-up with relationships to compensate for the time alone that the high-achieving partner’s work demands take.
Sometimes, this high-achievement is also paired with personality traits which can make relationships harder too like those that emphasize precision and deemphasize empathy or interpersonal warmth. In some cases, this might simply be alexithymia (a lack of awareness of and words for emotions) which is easily remedied in therapy with some mindfulness skills, somatic focusing exercises, and emotional vocabulary building. Other times, the personality traits are much deeper and the person has difficulties forming deeper relationships with friends, work colleagues, and long-term relationship partners too.
A First Setback
The myth high-achieving people have about failures is that high-achieving people don’t fail. Most know that this is false intellectually but dealing with the emotional reality of a big setback for the first time can be hard and therapy can help.
Sometimes clients come to see me after a first failure. It might be being fired from a job, a poor performance evaluation, or the closure of a start-up. I have seen time and again that when a client has put a lot of stock for their personal identity in their perpetual and unmitigated success, a first failure can be a real blow. Very literally, such an event changes their perception of their place in the world and history. To some, that might sound a bit grandiose but the reality is that people in this area are world-changers. When you think you are in line with your company or your ideas to be a part of an industry or world-changing event and the journey suddenly takes a left-turn, then the story you are telling needs to be updated.
Was the challenge caused because you were too trusting in a cutthroat world? Was the challenge that you weren’t collaborative enough? Maybe even worse, was what went wrong, simply not in your control, revealing to you that your perception of yourself as invulnerable wasn’t as accurate as you hoped? When I work with clients, around issues like a first failure, I try to help them focus on what they can learn from the experience, identifying what is and is not in their control, and on what they want to change that is in their control. Most of my high-achieving clients really like this part of the work because it plays right into their usual high-achieving mind-frame. Find the problem and fix it.
However, there is also another thread that I try to introduce into the therapy. I try to ask questions about what they want to build with their life, who they really want to be, and what their values really are. These questions often shift the conversations in therapy away from “What happened and how do I fix it?” to “What do I really want from here?” This second set of questions is also important because it allows a reorientation in life priorities and source of identity so that career setbacks won’t have the potential to cause instability in the future.
The myth high-achieving people have about their relationships is that if they are successful they don’t need therapy because nothing is wrong. But therapy isn’t only about what is wrong, sometimes it can focus on what can be better.
Sometimes, clients come to therapy not because there is something wrong, but because something can be better. High performing clients are sometimes looking for a person to help them in relationships, career, or self-regulation in a way that requires a therapeutic lens. For example, even when a relationship is good, it can sometimes benefit to have a therapist help you figure out how to deepen the emotional bond or a client planning a pitch to a VC firm might want to exude comfort not just remove anxiety. Sometimes, the right person for those developments might be a professional coach. Other times, the challenge comes from a psychological source with deep roots and is helps to have a therapist who can help you embrace the present by more fully letting go of the past.
I have spent most of this post identifying to the common challenges that high-achieving clients bring in to therapy. I hope that this post exposed the myths about both high-achieving people and about therapy. High-achieving people face unique stressors. The illusion that high-achievers don’t need help is false. I often ask my clients who are comparing themselves to other high-achievers if they know anyone else in therapy and they say “no”. Then I ask them how many of their friends they have told that they are in therapy and they say, “None”. This shows that high-achievers are often comparing their insides with other people’s outsides which is an unfair comparison. Finally, therapy isn’t only for people with mental illness. Though it can also help people with more serious issues, therapy can also help clients who are facing new challenges, who need help with managing the unique stress of rapid career advancement, or who experience some relationship challenges because they have focused so much on developing their business skills that they need to balance their life skills.
Call for a 15-minute consultation about therapy with me, 650-814-7823