Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Anxiety-Provoking Habits Among High Achievers

Practical tools to break these habits and reduce anxiety.

Tim Swaan/Unsplash
Source: Tim Swaan/Unsplash

Anxiety is on the rise. A CDC survey completed by approximately 5,400 people this past June showed that the prevalence of anxiety symptoms was three times higher than those reported in the second quarter of 2019.

Achievement-oriented individuals are especially prone to anxiety. They experience tremendous pressure to excel in multiple areas. High achievers expect to earn a healthy income, excel professionally, raise perfect children, have a beautiful house, keep a full social schedule, and be pillars of their communities. They expect themselves to maintain a high level of productivity despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Here are 5 habits that predispose high achievers to anxiety and how to overcome them.

1. They have a hard time saying "no."

High achievers are reliable. You can count on them to complete tasks. As a result, people flock to them with requests for help. They receive requests to join different committees and help on numerous projects.

The problem arises when feelings of guilt and obligation prevent you from saying "no." When this occurs, you reluctantly accept more responsibilities even though you are working at maximum capacity. Hence, you end up spread too thin and overwhelmed.

Overcoming guilt requires an examination of your expectations. Guilt arises from the difference between your actions and what you expect of yourself. Saying "no" provokes guilt when you expect yourself to say "yes." There are only two ways to reduce guilt. You continue to take on more responsibilities to meet self-imposed expectations or lower your expectations to a more realistic level.

Taking on more responsibilities to avoid feeling guilty is futile. Anxiety and burnout are the only logical outcomes from such an approach. Hence, you need to have more realistic expectations of yourself. You cannot always expect yourself to save the day by shouldering more responsibilities. Give yourself permission to set healthy boundaries by declining requests.

Keep in mind that saying "no" is unavoidable. If you refuse to say "no" to others, you ultimately say "no" to your inner peace. You have the freedom to choose the recipient of your "no."

2. They have a hard time asking for help.

High achievers experience difficulty asking for help. One has to relinquish control to request help. High achievers would rather maintain control by relying on their own grit and determination to complete a task.

There is an irony to this habit. The inability to ask for help and delegate tasks is counterproductive. It ultimately leads to an increase in anxiety as life spirals out of control from the heavy workload.

Accept that control is an illusion. Think about how little control we have. We do not even have full control over our own bodies. Our immune system fights off invaders without our input. Our heart beats tirelessly day and night. We go on with our daily lives without commanding our liver, thyroid, and kidneys to complete their important daily functions. Despite our best efforts, we fall ill. If we have such little control over our own bodies, how much control do we really have?

Give yourself permission to ask and accept help. We are interdependent and need each other. When I am in a therapy session with a patient, I rely on my staff to handle phone calls. When I am at work, I rely on my wife to care for our kids. When I am on vacation, I rely on colleagues to cover for me.

Setting healthy boundaries is not limited to saying No to others. It also includes knowing when to ask for help. You do not live in a bubble. Accept that you are, to a certain degree, reliant on others.

The key is to be considerate when you ask for help. Make reasonable asks, express genuine gratitude, and find ways to reciprocate the favor.

3. They compare themselves to successful people.

Social comparisons are part of the human condition. We use others as a measuring stick to determine our self-worth.

High achievers have a narrow definition of success. They compare themselves to people they perceive as successful. This skews their perspective. They experience high levels of anxiety as they relentlessly try to keep up with others in their reference group. Falling behind results in feelings of inadequacy and envy.

Learn how to rejoice in the success of others. Instead of feeling envy, why not appreciate their accomplishments? Their success is not a reflection on you. It has no bearing on you. There is plenty of room for you and others to experience success.

Substitute social comparisons with personal comparisons that focus on your individual progress. Focus instead on where you have been, where you are, and where you are heading on your personal journey.

4. They are not present in the moment.

Anxiety is defined as not being present in the moment. When we are anxious we are either looking too far into the future or ruminating on the past.

High achievers have a tendency to look too far ahead. They are in a rush to reach their goals as they anticipate the feeling of completion. They fixate so much on reaching their goals that they often fail to appreciate the journey leading to their destination.

Take the time to slow down and appreciate your journey. It is filled with valuable lessons as you overcome obstacles and inch closer to your goals. Ignoring the journey towards your desired destination is the equivalent of completing a hike in the woods and failing to appreciate the scenery along the path.

To be more present, practice meditation. Meditation is a practice that can reduce anxiety and promote happiness. There are many types. Mindfulness meditation encourages us to maintain awareness in the present moment as we focus on the flow of our breath. If this is too difficult to practice, you may incorporate a gratitude practice in your daily life. This practice can reduce anxiety and improve sleep.

5. They rely on achievement to feel worthy.

High achievers make the mistake of tying their self-worth to their level of achievement. This is problematic because it implies that self-worth is conditional. It oscillates with every success and failure.

In addition, the satisfaction from success is short-lived. There is a hedonic adaptation. It wears off rapidly. If you rely on achievement for happiness then you have no other choice but to endlessly pursue achievement to receive your next dose of satisfaction. There is no end in sight.

The truth is that self-worth is not associated with achievement. It is unconditional. No amount of success makes you more worthy. No amount of failure makes you less worthy.

Self-worth is an essential and undeniable part of our humanity. Your degrees, profession, salary, wealth, CV, or material possessions do not make you any more worthy. Self-worth is not derived from such accomplishments. You are worthy because you are human.

I often bring up my humble roots to illustrate this point. My father is a cook. My mother is a cashier at a grocery store. With their love and support, I became a physician. From a professional standpoint, I may have achieved more than my parents. However, does this make me a more worthy human being than them? Of course not!

A certain amount of anxiety is healthy and useful. It can motivate us to reach our goals in life. The problem occurs when anxiety becomes excessive because we prioritize the pursuit of achievement over our relationships and well-being.

LinkedIn Image: fizkes/Shutterstock. Facebook image: nelen/Shutterstock

More from Dimitrios Tsatiris M.D.
More from Psychology Today