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The Loneliness of an Overachiever

Overachievers might get the job done, but in my experience, they don’t share others’ perceptions of themselves.

Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

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Tabby Refael
Tabby Refael (on Twitter @RefaelTabby) is a Los Angeles based writer, speaker and activist.

This is a tale of two Shabbats.

It was the best of meals, it was the worst of meals. A decade ago, I attended a Shabbat dinner hosted by a woman who was an amazing cook. I joined a dozen guests around the table and almost passed out at the sight of all the tender, delectable meat dishes, candied fruit and nuts, gorgeous salads and warm puff pastries, oozing with meat and potatoes — and those were just the appetizers. But something strange happened that night. No one paid our host a compliment about the food except me (and I complimented her after an hour of non-stop eating). And her husband had the gall to whisper in her ear that she still hadn’t quite perfected his mother’s brisket recipe. 

It was almost as if the guests were used to being served amazing food at this home. And none of them helped clean up afterward. 

The following week, I attended a Shabbat lunch at the home of another couple. Before arriving, I ate a salami sandwich and a bag of chips. I loved being in the company of this lovely family, but having attended meals at their home before, I knew the wife was a well-intentioned, but terrible cook. 

In fact, as I stared at the pale poultry that seemed to float miserably in a “sauce” composed of water and a vegetable I found unrecognizable, I wished I’d eaten a second salami sandwich on the walk over. Fortunately, the host opened a pre-made bag of iceberg lettuce and placed a bottle of salad dressing next to it. 

“This salad is so good!” cried her husband, possibly oblivious to the fact that his wife had, in fact, opened a bag. Another guest smiled and said, “Can I have this chicken recipe?” Most of the guests helped clean up and some even washed dishes. 

What was going on here? Perhaps the husband in the second story understood more about how to maintain shalom bayit, or peace in the home, than the first. Perhaps the guests in the second home were more polite and less entitled. But I suspected something else: the woman in the first story was a classic overachiever. 

You know the kind: the ones who give 150%, and who make Mary Poppins look like Joan Crawford. The ones who seem to whip up a five-course meal as if by magic, and who, come Purim, create mishloach manot baskets consistent with the theme of their kids’ costumes. 

I know these people. I am one of them. And if you also consider yourself an overachiever, I have one question: It’s lonely, isn’t it?

The more you do, the more capable you seem to everyone around you. And the more you seem to have it all together, the less support you receive. It makes perfect sense. Why would someone who seems like Superman or Superwoman need help?

The more you do, the more capable you seem to everyone around you. And the more you seem to have it all together, the less support you receive. It makes perfect sense. Why would someone who seems like Superman or Superwoman need help?

“There’s an old colloquial saying: ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person,’” said Dr. Rami Sadeghi, a Beverly Hills-based clinical psychologist, told the Journal. “Normally you’d figure that the busy person is the last person you want to ask. But you make your request to a busy person because that’s the person that gets things done.”

Overachievers might get the job done, but in my experience, they don’t share others’ perceptions of themselves. First, many don’t see themselves as superhuman by choice, believing they must work twice as hard to compensate for someone or something. And whereas others see a superhuman, they know they’re struggling and need support. 

“The loneliness,” said Sadeghi, “is not just because so much stuff ends up on the overachiever’s lap, but because we feel connected to others when we feel they ‘know’ us. But if they think we’re superman/woman, they have a totally different understanding of who we really are. They’re perceiving person A, whereas we know we’re not person A.”

Not feeling seen or truly known can hurt. Ironically, overachievers don’t want to be seen as superhuman, but “overachievers want to be seen, period,” said Sadeghi. “First and foremost, to be seen, they stand out. They’re special, but they’ll earn their special-seen status. What we crave and need in life more than anything else is to be known by others. Really, what we’re aching and needing and reaching for is the connection that comes with being known.”

I suspect that in the case of the first Shabbat host, others saw a Superwoman who would never fumble. And some guests might have assumed that if they helped her, they might be in the way. In the second woman, however, they saw someone who didn’t have it all together, and who didn’t seem particularly fueled by appearing exceptional. 

Is there a difference between being healthily driven and being an overachiever?

“The distinguishing factor between a driven person and an overachiever is fuel versus inspiration,” said Dr. Morgan Hakimi, Chair of Psychology at Touro College Los Angeles.

“The overachiever’s labor is not inspiration; rather a subjection to intense internal and psychological pressures, as well as emotional burdens.”

It took many years, but I’ve learned not to blame anyone for my overachieving gene, for the times I perceive I’m lacking support. But I have repeatedly found that those who believe I am Superwoman are surprised to learn how much I struggle. Amazingly, there is treatment for chronic overachievement:

“The healing process begins by pausing to address the psychological wounds that made hard work the only defense against intolerable trauma,” said Hakimi. “Self-compassion allows for transformation from loss, sadness and humiliation to grasping how the present so-called successful self has been shaped by responding to grave wounds of the past.”

I have to think long and hard about why I’m such a frustrated overachiever, but I draw inspiration from those two Shabbat meals a decade ago. Ideally, I’m striving to find a metaphoric balance between the overwhelmed efforts of the first host and the underwhelming offerings of the second.

In the meantime, because I so want be known by others, I will continue to try to overachieve with the meal I serve you every week.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker, and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby

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