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The Hidden Trauma of Overachievement Overachievement is a survival instinct: How it may be killing your authenticity and purpose.

By Amanda Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

What is your why?

If you are thinking about starting your own business, this is an important question to ask yourself. Why do you want to start a business?

Is it because you feel called to a purpose? Is it because you feel burnt out and overwhelmed in your corporate job?

If it is the latter, it's important to understand the reasons you are feeling overwhelemed.

We are a society that values success above most, if not all, things. Success can be wonderful, when it comes from a place of authenticity, purpose, and alignment.

Related: How to Create Multiple Happiness Streams in Your Life

However, success does not always equal happiness or fulfillment, especailly when we chase success blindly with no sense of purpose and we use that success as a measure of our own self-value and worth.

Many of us subconsiously chase success out of unrelenting need to be perfect, to gain external validation that we never got in childhood, and to prove ourselves worthy of love. In her book How to Do the Work, Dr. Nicole LePera writes that the overachiever "Feels seen, heard, and valued through success and achievement. Uses external validation as a way to cope with low self-worth. Believes that the only way to recieve love is through achievement."

As overachievers, we often use our careers as a way to distract ourselves from unhealed wounds and keep ourselves busy enough to avoid any real type of intimacy.

This was true for me. I chased success in a corporate job for over 10 years, constantly ignoring my authentic self while chasing achievement for validation and using work as a way to ignore my past and my pain. It certainly worked in making me "successful" — I was making six figures as a manager in a global consulting firm by age 25.

It was great, until I woke up one day and realized I was depressed, unfulfilled, and doing anything I could to avoid feeling this huge gap in my life. Constantly overworking myself and striving for perfection burnt me out. I didn't want to stay in my job, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had no idea what made me happy, or what was fulfilling to me. The thought of being anything less than perfect and successful in a "good" job seemed like failure to me. Plus, the money I was making was a form of validation and protection. I didn't want to risk that.

Related: 20 Secrets to Living a Happier Life

Many of us had childhoods that didn't allow us to express our true selves. For those who were abandoned in some way as a child, whether through abuse or neglect or had parents who pushed them to be a certain way, we were not allowed to feel heard or seen. As a result, we abandoned our true selves and our true wants. We learned to survive by ignoring our authenticity and excessively relying on one of our four human survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.

Perfectionism and "driven-ness" are actually flight responses, a survival instinct for emotional abandonment as a child.

In his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, therapist Pete Walker writes that "many flight types perpetually stay busy and industrious to avoid being triggered by deeper relating. Others also work obsessively to perfect themselves hoping to someday become worthy enough of love. Such flight types have great difficultly showing anything but their perfect persona."

When developed healthily, the flight response insures good boundaries, assertiveness, and healthy self-protection when necessary. When constantly relied on as a need for survival or an attempt to cope with unhealed wounds, our survival instinct impairs our ability to relax in an undefended state. It also dulls our awareness of our past trauma and distracts us from our feelings of misalignment.

This leads to the workaholic.

The person who is always "on".

The Type-A personality who rushes to achieve.

The perfectionist.

The overachiever.

This leads to constant doing, and worrying or planning when you are not doing.

This leads to burying ourselves in work to avoid authenticity and vulnerability.

This leads to anxiety, panic, burnout, and in more extremene cases, addiction, depression, and sometimes suicide.

As Dr. Lepera writes, it "can be devestating for those in traditionally desired professions who struggle to cope with the misalignment of their careers, use substances, experience mental health issues, and in extreme cases, even commit suicide."

Related: Why Living in Your Prosperity Zone Is the Key to Success

Walker futher illustrates this by writing, "Flight types are also susceptible to the process addictions of workaholism and busy-holism. To keep these processes humming, they can deteriorate into stimulating substance addictions."

As entrepreneurs, we want to build our businesses authentically and with purpose. We want to work hard, but avoid burnout. We want to feel aligned with what we're building. We don't want to use our business as a distraction for life, we want to use it to create lives we love.

If you tend to be a perfectionist or an overachiever, you may consider that there are childhood wounds you still need to heal.

Only when I started my healing process was I able to truly connect to myself and find a career I felt deeply aligned to. Healing helped me grow my business from a state of peace instead of panic. Healing helped me grow my business with the goal of impact instead of validation or achievement.

When you grow your business from a place of authenticity and alignment, you have the opportunity to create impactful success and build a fulfilling life you feel aligned to.

It is never too late to start the healing process, and build a fulfilling life.


Certified Trauma Recovery Coach

Amanda Westland is a certified trauma recovery coach. Her goal is to raise awareness of the lasting after-effects of trauma, make trauma-recovery resources widely available to survivors and advocate for businesses to become trauma-informed.

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