Propelled by Trauma: The Dark Side of High Achievers

Trauma is a conquerer. It has a way of subduing one and keeping them in her captivity for a lifetime. When we consider suffering, we think of moments or strings of them, focusing on the acts and their immediate results. But, the footprints, carving their initials into us, possess the ability to substantially alter our goals, beliefs, and feelings, essentially creating an automaton who solely aspires to greatness.

When we think of high achievers and performers, we mostly see the wins, congratulating them on completing a process that’s even seldom imagined. Yet, despite having lives that appear to border on perfection, their inner worlds are full of turmoil; that’s the price. The child who’s bullied, whether by his parents or peers, is convinced of his inferiority to the rest of the world, seeing himself as perpetually stigmatized. In his world, the others are judging and laughing at him, taking pains to rub their superiority in his face. Eventually, he learns to hate them, blaming the world for his self-conceptions and limited opportunities. Life, then, transforms into his saga for revenge, wherein everyone is the enemy. His rage, like one of his achievements, is founded in his sadism.

The frequent dark side of the high achiever isn’t often mentioned; we’d rather sanitize our heroes. But, it’s there for anyone who wants to see it; one doesn’t have to look that hard. Emulating high performers has become a lucrative gimmick, leaving me wondering if most people really know or care about the drawbacks. Again, we only really see the wins.

Most of the books and podcasts covering their blueprints fail to express the deep sadness that often accompanies their glory, and the black and white thinking that precludes them from achieving an inner conception of success. If you ever meet one of them, they’ll tell you that being average scares them and how they aren’t where they thought they’d be. They’ll tell you about never feeling good enough and feeling like a loser. Where others see grey, they only envisage what they’re missing. To them, to be average, to realize that they’re “just another schmo” is equivalent to being no one and, more importantly, to return to where they came from.

And we see that in the life of Jay Gatsby, the protagonist of a story I frequently mention. He had to be the best; for to be anything less was a reminder of where we came from and who he was: nothing more than a poor boy. He sought out certainty of his value, which was embodied in the highest socioeconomic class. To him, his attempts, his life, were only worth it if he climbed the highest mountain. And, in blaming the world for his suffering, for thrusting him into poverty and abandoning him, he yearned to prove his superiority to it. He longed to verify that it could no longer beat him down, that he was no longer weak and it strong; that, in fact, he was impervious to its hitherto unrelenting siege.

His inner dialogue reminded him of his status each time he recognized someone as more skilled. After losses, the achiever recalls his inferiority, narrowing his vision to himself and those above him, for he can’t perceive the complexity of who he is and, as significant, the wholeness of the other. He, then, over-generalizes his opponent’s success, inferring it from the lives of all of the others, concluding with the thought of how much more he needs to do, questioning whether or not he’ll ever be the best.

The drive for greatness propels him forward because stagnation is a form of death; he doesn’t exist, or isn’t allow to, until attained. Until then, he is a shadow. The high achiever is also, or at least can be, the perfectionist. The overlap is obvious when considering the fear of failure, the conception of people deemed to be “average” as losers, and the persistent comparison to those seemingly above him. The costs of greatness, one of which is an inability to acknowledge it, are unaffordable in the long-term. As long as the ladder has more rungs, the achiever will not let-up.

And, that’s the constitution of trauma’s conquest. Its victim, when a high-performer, often embodies the traits of sadism, depression, black and white thinking, overgeneralized thinking, anhedonia, mental filtering, and compulsiveness. He sacrifices his life to negate his past, absolving himself of any responsibility toward others and rejecting the chance to foster intimacy.

In treatment, when effective, the high-achiever’s narcissistic tendencies are redirected to some extent. He learns to partially re-channel his drive for greatness toward another’s growth, finally accepting his need for companionship. He learns about his distorted thinking and to cast blame where it belongs; revenge is now transformed into righteous indignation, aimed at those who harm him. The high-performer finds meaning in helping others, leaving behind his own indelible footprint as a legend and a mentor. If successful, therapy contributes to the development of an outward gaze, which teaches him that lasting greatness abides in his painstaking affect on others.

The dark side of the high achiever evolves into an ever-present radiance, shining its light just like the Sun. He doesn’t forget about himself, but his focus is no longer solely on himself.

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