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Emotional Well-Being and the High Achiever

The person who looks like they've got it all may be suffering in silence.

Key points

  • Research shows that high achievers have a high rate of depression.
  • Identifying with work can lead to a lack of balance within one's personal life.
  • Maladaptive perfectionism can contribute to unhappiness, regardless of the level of success achieved.

High-achieving individuals of all ages (including executives, entertainers, athletes, students, and parents) can often appear to have it all together. They work hard, exercise discipline, attain goals, and typically appear to be in control with little or no emotional stress.

For example, you probably know and admire a parent who, seemingly with ease, manages the home, daily schedules, and children’s educational needs, plus nurtures the family, and still maintains a social life with friends. There’s the entertainer who maintains a grueling schedule of concerts, travel, practice, and coping with the constant media attention. For athletes, the constant pressure of meeting their own performance expectations and those of their fans in every game is a burden over time that can become wearing, but they make it look easy. You may wonder how they do it all.

Don’t Let Them See You Sweat

For years, the norm for high achievers was to maintain the image of ease and joy in doing what they love. Resilience was seen as an asset—and that was generally viewed as knowing how to deal with stress and being tough. The high achiever was expected to cope well, consistent with the old saying, “never let them see you sweat.”

Maintaining this image requires putting on a mask, hiding vulnerability, and not letting anyone see them as “weak.” But pushing down emotions and putting on a false front takes its toll emotionally and can limit the support that might be available if others understood better the stress the person was experiencing. Not being vulnerable separates you from connections with others.

It's Not Work Because I Love Doing It

High achievers often love what they do. They’re passionate about their work. Having a career doing what you love seems like a gift. And it is. It’s also true that when you do what you love, you are more susceptible to burnout. When you identify with your work, it can lead to a lack of balance with your personal life, difficulty setting boundaries, and an increased sense of loneliness.

Depression and High Achievers

Research shows that high achievers have a high incidence of depression. For CEOs, the rate is estimated to be from double the national level of 20% to as high as 50% (Barnard, 2010, Burguieres, 2008). High-achieving students suffer from anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and delinquent behavior at a rate that is two to three times higher than the national average. Youth in high-achieving schools have been designated an-risk category (Luthar 2020).

What’s contributing to these high rates of depression? High achievers are likely to have high competition comparisons. They tend to see other people as competitors and are scanning to see how their performance measures up, with a focus on winning or losing in each comparison.

Who had the most people at their party? Who got the highest grade? Who made the most sales?

High achievers may see their success only in terms of the most recent performance or test. Regardless of how they performed in previous games, they may see themselves as failing because they missed a goal in the most recent match.

Maladaptive perfectionism plays a role too. High achievers can be overly critical of their performance and seek to attain perfection, though they often don’t acknowledge it. Instead of seeing what went well, they focus on what didn’t go as well. Thus, they rarely have a sense of “good enough.”

High achievers may also tend to see their value in their achievements, not who they are as a person. Their identity becomes that of a “high-achiever.” This includes the achievement of being a good parent, which is measured by the success of the children. Some may focus on their arena of achievement to the exclusion of relationships, creating chronic loneliness. Chronic loneliness can, and often does, lead to depression.

The Value of Therapy

Recently, particularly in entertainment and sports, more are being open about the cost of maintaining a rugged schedule and the need to take time to prioritize their mental health. Their openness can be helpful to others and hopefully reduce the stigma of seeking therapy as a high achiever. Too many high-achieving students and professionals are silently suffering. Plus, therapy is not just for those who are already depressed. Therapy can help you find your focus, your balance, and create the best life for you.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Barnard, Jayne W., Narcissism, Over-Optimism, Fear, Anger, and Depression: The Interior Lives of Corporate Leaders (2008). University of Cincinnati Law Review, 2008, William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 08-10, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1136888

PBS Interview, 2008. Faces of Depression: Phillip Burguieres. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/takeonestep/depression/faces-philip.html

Luthar, S. S., Kumar, N. L., & Zillmer, N. (2020). High-achieving schools connote risks for adolescents: Problems documented, processes implicated, and directions for interventions. American Psychologist, 75(7), 983–995. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000556

uthar, Suniya & Suh, Bin & Ebbert, Ashley & Kumar, Nina. (2020). Students in High-Achieving Schools: Perils of Pressures to Be “Standouts”. Adversity and Resilience Science. 1. 10.1007/s42844-020-00009-3

Moss, J.(2021). The Burn Out Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. Harvard Business Review Press,

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