7 Signs That You May be an Anxious Over Achiever (Even if You Would Never Describe Yourself as One)

Anxious Overachiever | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Anxious Overachiever | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

We all know one.  That person who always seems to have it together.  She seems to always be on the go, getting involved in committees and projects.  She gets up at 5:00 a.m. to fit in a morning work-out.  She is kind and gracious, with a large group of friends.  Her home is beautifully decorated.  She gets recognition at work.  She always looks put together.  However, despite this, she feels that she is never good enough.  There is a constant sense of “should do more.”  The anxiety may be overwhelming that pops up every now and again or it may be a constant, quiet hum that is always there.  She is always striving to do more, yet it never feels good enough.  She is the anxious over achiever.  She is prone to worry and her way of coping is to achieve.  However, it is never enough.  There is always more to do.  It is exhausting.  

Are you an anxious over-achiever?

  1. The idea that you are an over achiever is laughable (to you).  However, you likely have heard from other people “I don’t know how you do it.”  You may have done really well in school, even gone on to advanced degrees.  You get involved in your community, whether it’s sitting on committees or even starting a group.  You have a skill or talent that you are known for. If you objectively assess, you have probably done things that most people do not do.
  1. You have a difficult time acknowledging your accomplishments.  It might feel like you are bragging.  You minimize your successes (“It’s really not that big of a deal that I made partner at my firm”).  You tend to surround yourself with other accomplished people and feel that you never quite measure up to their successes.
  1. You have a hard time finishing projects because they won’t be “perfect.”  Whether it’s a craft, an article that you’re trying to write, or decorating a room, there is a block.  You have an ideal outcome, and if you feel that you can’t reach it, it’s not worth doing.  The idea of making mistakes terrorizes you.  You have struggled with procrastination.
  1. You would describe yourself as a worrier.  You worry about your family.  You worry about your finances.  You worry about your health.  You worry about your job.  You worry about your parenting skills.  You worry about the future.  The anxiety has likely been a life-long companion.
  1. You cope with the worry by making plans.  You have a plan A, B, C & D.  You make lists (it gives you a thrill to check something off as completed!).  You have an idea of where you want to be in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years.  You try to map out your life.
  1. You’re both drawn to and completely confused by “laid back” people.  You can’t understand how someone can just leave packing a suitcase until the last minute.  You’re baffled by their approach to just “play it by ear.”  However, you are drawn to this type of person and may even choose someone like this as your partner (which then can lead to frustrations down the road).
  1. There is a discrepancy between your expectations of yourself (very high), your perceptions of yourself (low) and reality (likely closer to your expectations than you acknowledge).  While setting high expectations is not necessarily a bad thing, you often set them *too* high and often in all parts of your life.  You want to be the best mother, wife, professional, yogi, scrapbooker and baker that Pinterest tells you that you should be.  However, you are hard on yourself, and perceive yourself as falling very short of your expectations.  You have a mental list of the mistakes you’ve made, how you are failing and you are your own worst critic.  If you objectively assessed your successes (or had other people judge them), there is a great likelihood that your reality is much closer to your expectations then you give yourself credit for.

How do you break the anxious over achiever cycle?  First acknowledge that you are one.  This may be a tough one, since it involves accepting that you are indeed an over achiever.  Own your accomplishments and your strengths.  There is nothing shameful about acknowledging it.  Once you have accepted that you are an anxious over achiever, start becoming aware of 1) your expectations 2) your perceptions and 3) reality.  Often there is a tension between the three which can create anxiety; if you feel that you’re never living up to a certain ideal (despite evidence to the contrary) this is going to fuel the anxiety.  You will be stuck in a place of feeling never “enough. “

Often anxious over achievers seek therapy because the anxiety becomes overwhelming.  While over achieving may keep the anxiety at bay for a period of time, as life becomes more challenging, this coping mechanism is just not sustainable.   There is no way to be amazing at all things.  Learning to be more compassionate to ourselves, allowing ourselves to fail, allowing ourselves to lower the bar and learning to tolerate, rather than fight, the anxiety are ways to break this anxiety cycle.  Believe that you are good enough.

10 Simple Ways to Manage Holiday Stress

Holiday Stress | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

Holiday Stress | Agnes Wainman | London Psychological Services

December, and the holidays, can be a tough month for many people.  There are so many expectations and ideals of what the holidays “should” look like.  Striving to meet these ideals can be incredibly stressful though.  Travel, over-scheduling, financial strains, family conflict and over-stimulation can create feelings of anxiety, stress and feeling overwhelmed.  Now is probably the time when you need to manage the stress the most, but when your resources are limited.  It is probably not the best time to start an intensive meditation practice or learn a new hobby.  Here are a few simple ways to manage holiday stress (you can start meditating in January!).

  1. Create realistic expectations about what the holidays will be like.  Having realistic expectations can protect us from feeling disappointed or frustrated by our situations.  Base your expectations on previous years.  If most years are chaotic and hurried, there is a good chance that this year will be like that again (unless we make conscious changes to alter the experience-more on that next!).   Many people feel disappointed when their holiday celebrations don’t turn out to be the picture perfect Norman Rockwell experience, even when they have zero evidence to support that fantasy.  Even if it’s uncomfortable, base your expectations on your previous experiences.
  2. Make changes if previous experiences have been stressful, even if those changes may not be accepted by everyone.  One of the most common stressors for my clients is establishing new traditions with their created families while maintaining the traditions with their family of origin.  Sometimes it’s impossible for the two to co-exist together, and difficult changes need to be made.  A few years ago my husband and I decided that it was too stressful to travel on Christmas day with young children.  While this decision changed the holiday experience for us and our extended family, it made things much more manageable.  You need to decide what the right balance for you and your family is.
  3. Take a deep breath when things start feeling overwhelming.  Make sure it’s a true deep breath.  Most of us have trained ourselves to be chest breathers and very rarely take truly deep breaths.  Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.  Take a deep breath.  If the hand on your chest moves, your breathing is too shallow.  The hand on your belly should move as your belly expands.  Watch babies and animals breathing – that’s what you’re striving for.
  4. Don't rely on caffeine to get through the holiday season.  I understand, this one is painful.  Caffeine can be fabulous.  It can perk you up, make long days bearable, and give you that boost that you need to face the shopping crowds.  However, it can also boost our heart rate, make us feel jittery and essentially mimic symptoms of anxiety.  If you’re already revved up by stress, probably not a good idea to caffeinate.
  5. Be in the present moment during the enjoyable moments.  Often we are on autopilot, especially when we feel that there is a lot to achieve, and we then miss out on the positive effects of a pleasurable moment.  During a holiday dinner, truly taste the food that you are eating.   Give a friend or family member that you may not see very often all of your attention and focus on the connection between the two of you.  Enjoy the quiet moments.
  6. Make time for exercise.  You don’t have to train for a marathon, become a competitive body builder or manage to turn yourself into a human pretzel, especially during a hectic time like the holidays.  Just move your body in a way that you enjoy, get the blood pumping, and spend some time doing something that is healthy for both your mind and body.
  7. Help someone.  Help an elderly person load groceries into their cars.  Drop off a home cooked meal to a new mom.  Turn the focus away from yourself and find a way to make someone else’s day a little better.  It doesn’t have to be a long term, highly invested commitment on your part, just a simple act that someone may appreciate.  During the holidays, there are usually lots of opportunities to help others.
  8. Go outside for a few minutes.  You don’t have to go on a 100 kilometre hike, just get out of your house or office.  Get some fresh air, eyeball some nature and just change up your scenery for a few minutes.
  9. Stretch.  Sitting for long periods of time is bad for our bodies and our minds.  Get up, stretch out and get the blood flowing.  This is particularly important if you are doing a lot of travelling and are trapped in a car/plane/train for long periods of time.
  10. Practice being grateful.  Experiencing gratitude has many benefits (see here for more information) and the holidays can be an ideal time to exercise our gratitude muscles.  Reflect on the last year; what are some of the highlights?  What progress did you make?  What parts of the holiday celebrations do you most enjoy and feel grateful to be able to participate in?

While is is likely that the holiday season will bring some stress, it is possible to manage the holiday stress and enjoy.

Balancing Self-Care and Care Giving

Care giving can come in many forms. You might be caring for children, for elderly parents, an ill spouse, siblings who turn to you at a time of need. Your profession may involve care giving. Care giving can be physical acts (feeding, clothing, wiping snotty noses!) or providing emotional support. Regardless of whom you are caring for and what that care looks like, it can be exhausting! While there is no doubt that taking care of others can feel good (and is often necessary), it can be tricky to balance the care of others and your own self care. Self care is critical to your own emotional well being. There is basic self care such as eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep and engaging in physical activity. Even these basics can be neglected when caring for other people. Sleepless parents can definitely relate to the experience of having their own sleep affected by care giving to a child in the middle of the night. In addition to basic self care, we greatly benefit from participating in activities that we find enjoyable. Having a hobby is linked to greater creativity, increased problem solving skills and overall emotional well being. Self care can also include seeing friends and engaging with our support system. Feeling a sense of connection is associated with better mental health, decreased levels of depression and anxiety and can help us cope better with stressors.

Often caregivers feel that their own self care is very low on the priority list. There may even be guilt associated with engaging in self care. This lack of self care however, can have detrimental effects. If we do not engage in our own self care, we can start to suffer both emotionally and physically. Our ability to cope begins to decrease and we start to feel overwhelmed. When we feel overwhelmed, we are unable to provide optimal care giving. We may start to feel frustrated with those that we are caring for. Requests for our help can feel enormously stressful. We may eventually feel so burnt out, that we are no longer able to provide care giving.

In order to avoid these feelings of being frustrated, overwhelmed and burnt out, we need to make self care a priority. It is not a luxury, but a necessity in order for us to be able to take care of those that we love and value. By taking care of ourselves, we are taking care of others as well. Take the time today to do something that is just for you, something that you enjoy and value. Banish feelings of guilt, as you are not doing anything wrong by taking care of yourself. Just enjoy, recharge and reap the benefits of self care.