The Accomplishment Trap

Posted on October 17th, 2019

Accomplishing something—anything—is innately pleasing to us. Because of this, and because we live in an achievement-oriented world, we are drawn from an early age toward focusing our attentions on accomplishments and their outer rewards of approval, recognition, money, power, and status.

Basing our sense of who we are on our accomplishments and how they are received is both satisfying and anxiety-provoking. The sands of our own and others’ opinions about the value of any accomplishment are always shifting. One day we may think what we have done is marvelous; the next we feel it is worthless.

The threat of our anxiety about this, more than the pleasure of accomplishment, drives the twins of overachieving and perfectionism.

Overachieving can start innocently enough, with the spontaneous joy of accomplishing derived from any activity, from making a sandwich to designing a city. The assumption is that since achieving feels good, more of it should feel better. And it does to a point. The difficulty is that the brief high of achievement requires the long labor of doing. As with any drug, the high seems to take more and more labor to be felt at all. We become worn out, with little payback.

Perfectionism goes beyond an everyday desire to do something well, make an excellent cup of coffee or paint a beautiful painting. In perfectionism, these benign activities spread to a generalized need to do everything with an exceptionally high level of performance: making the ‘perfect’ cup of coffee in the ‘perfect’ kitchen wearing the ‘perfect’ clothes for the ‘perfect’ guests having the ‘perfect’ conversation. Determining standards for each of these activities and situations and then living up to these standards—usually with an appearance of casualness, as though none of this requires effort—is the ultimate perfectionism, which comes to seem merely how things are rather than anything special. A gloomy sameness prevails.  

What overachieving and perfectionism have in common is that they over-emphasize accomplishment, so that a letup in the stream of accomplishments makes us feel threateningly empty. The more we live this way, the less space we leave for our ability to freely experience the moment in front of us, unmeasured, just as it is, full of fleeting feelings and undigested impressions. We also diminish our ability to weather the emotional difficulties of life, fumbling and sadness and loneliness and loss, without needing to retreat into an idealized image of ourselves. All told, an overemphasis on achievements results in an enlarged persona and a somewhat stunted human being.

Re-entry into experience unmediated by over-valuing achievements can be painful, since we can’t bring our accomplishment-oriented selves with us. Enjoying the aroma of fresh lilacs can be a delectable experience. The moment we think pridefully, ‘I planted these wonderful lilacs,’ we lose the free pleasure of the experience and introduce a subtle but corrosive uneasiness about ourselves. To avoid this uneasiness, the lilacs, if they are noticed at all, are a rushed experience passed through on the way to achieving something else, something important no doubt, but still a stepping away from the immediacy of fresh lilacs, the immediacy of this very moment. 

This is our dilemma. To resolve it, we have to work toward balancing achievement with simple presence.

Posted in Individual Counseling

Please remember, this is a blog. It is not psychotherapy or treatment of any kind and is not a substitute for the individual treatment you can get from going to see a good therapist.