Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why Are High Achievers Often Unhappy?

The inner force that propels them to achieve greatness can cause discontentment.

Key points

  • For high achievers, while they make great sacrifices, their accomplishments become starkly less valuable once attained.
  • For most high achievers, the price of success is alienation and loneliness.
  • Their skewed self-perception may trace back to early life when they were invalidated by their environment or seen as unintelligent or lazy.
Thought Catalog/Unsplash
Source: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

High achievers struggle with quenching their insatiable need for accomplishment. The goals they put blinders on to achieve are pursued to the detriment of their relationships, free time, and fulfillment of physical and emotional needs. The paradox is this: While they make great sacrifices, their accomplishments become starkly less valuable once attained.

The fundamental problem is that the goal post is constantly moving. There are always more degrees to earn, organizations to join, promotions to gain, and board positions to receive.

They invest the majority of their energy into finding fulfillment through a boundless list of accolades. Instead, it is important for them to shift focus toward the perpetual sense of deficiency sustaining this drive.

While attainment of the goal itself is motivating, it holds an underlying instrumental value to bolster self-worth. The catch is this: Their self-concept becomes kaleidoscopic, constantly morphing and creating new conditions to prove their value.

Ultimately, underneath the pursuit of these goals is an attempt to resolve an inner sense of unworthiness or not feeling enough as they are.

For high achievers, each day does not start at zero. Instead, they are operating from the red zone, where they perceive themselves relentlessly stationed. They often believe themselves to be less skilled, smart, or naturally capable, which drives them to work that much harder to offset these perceived flaws. If they are competing against others to climb a mountain, they gauge their starting point in a disadvantaged position behind the starting line.

Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash
Source: Ante Hamersmit/Unsplash

Self-Perception Based on Past Difficulties

Usually, this skewed self-perception traces back to early life when they were invalidated by their environment or were seen as unintelligent or lazy. There is a common history of undiagnosed childhood depression that not only was untreated but also pigeonholed them as being seen as stagnant and careless. That self-image becomes internalized and slings them far behind the starting point relative to others when they face new challenges in the present.

In their attempt to escape this position by working harder, longer, and smarter, that feeling continues to recur because often they fail to resolve the biases in their perspective. Instead, they fixate on solving their internal problem of self-worth through the external world, via tangible trophies and accomplishments, which never seem to penetrate the shell of their self-concept.

They especially struggle with having appreciation for and recognition of their past achievements. As soon as they reach their goals, they immediately become less valuable by virtue of having attained them.

Once they do reach the top of the mountain, they are unable to enjoy the view because they are conditioned to keep climbing. It is as if the peak they climbed is besieged by rising seawater. Once they reach a new goal, it feels less impressive because their baseline for success concurrently rises.

The problem is with their fixed sense of self, which is an image of someone who is not competent, smart, or capable on their own. They struggle with truly internalizing accomplishments as their own.

Instead, they shift their focus to the next goal, higher up the mountain, instead of owning their success, as they continue to attempt to solve this internal problem through the accumulation of accolades to make them appear successful on the outside. They find themselves stuck in a vicious cycle as once one goal is attained, they turn their attention toward the next goal on the horizon.

Does Contentment Lead to Mediocrity?

The goal is not to become utterly content so forward momentum toward the next goal is thwarted. Underlying this mechanism is ambivalence about this vicious cycle and the belief that it is a necessary force that drives them toward their goals. They tend to have a core belief that contentment breeds averageness or failure because, without the drive to overcorrect, their inadequacy would be revealed.

What they don’t realize is that they hold the power to succeed regardless of their self-perception. They are capitalizing on this insecurity to mobilize and incentivize at the expense of feeling unworthy and less than others. This is not a harmless driver. It causes a fixed dichotomy with the way in which they position themselves: as either below or above, but never equal to others. For most high achievers, the price of success is alienation and loneliness.

Fear plays a role in sustaining this cycle. If they get too comfortable and complacent, they worry they will lack the motivation to be successful. They fear regressing back to that unmotivated and apathetic kid.

Instead, they must learn that they can achieve their goals and more if they begin to channel the energy and mental space that is consumed with sustaining the deficit beliefs toward more productive areas. They can begin to work smarter and not harder to achieve the things that are important to them.

More from Sabrina Romanoff Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Sabrina Romanoff Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today