Being an overachiever often means an inescapable feeling of inadequacy. Couple that with being a Black woman in the US, and you’ve got a recipe for pathologically setting unrealistically high expectations followed by harsh self-criticism when you inevitably don’t meet those expectations.
As a kid, being an overachiever usually meant reaching a predetermined goal that everyone insists is the most important thing to focus on: get a high GPA, get a grade level ahead in certain subjects, get high scores on the state test, get involved in extracurricular activities and become the leader of at least one of them…I could go on. And the way to achieve those goals were straightforward: you read this book, memorize those facts, learn that equation, conjugate that verb, study for that test, etc. etc.
There was no mystery, one step followed the next. There was pretty much only one path forward. Is this a gross oversimplification? Sure, but for me, this was as uncomplicated as it got. Do ABC and get XYZ.
But, the feelings of inadequacy always came, because I couldn’t just do well, I had to be the best. I had to achieve near perfection. Not because I actually wanted to be the best—I don’t particularly like the spotlight—but because being the best meant ending that racially driven debate about whether I was even capable of doing well.
From school to extracurricular activities, someone was always putting up a barrier to my progress where they thought I didn’t belong. Being sent to the principal’s office at 5 to prove that I actually could read and wasn’t just memorizing books being read to me. Fighting with teachers who gave me low grades because they didn’t believe I really did the work–‘She must’ve cheated.’ Learning a year’s worth of math in a semester to “catch up” after being forced into the wrong class because they thought I was lying about being a grade ahead despite what my transcripts said. Listening to people speak to me the way ignorant people talk to folks who speak English as a second language, as if I couldn’t understand their instructions.
The bullshit was never ending.
I constantly felt the need to prove someone wrong. I lived in the headspace of “I’ll show you!” And I usually did. I excelled and defied expectations all throughout childhood and adolescence. But as soon as I didn’t do something perfect, as soon as I made a mistake, I was kicking myself in the ass.
I failed. They’re going to think they were right all along, I’m not supposed to be here. So I’d double down and push myself even harder and not sleep or take care of myself.
But that’s a failing endeavor. No matter how well you do at one level, at some point you go to a new class, new grade, new place, new school, and start all over again at having to prove yourself. It’s a vicious cycle.
The other major problem with being an overachiever and living in the space of “I’ll show you!,” is that your life becomes overly structured and rigid, and it prevents you from figuring out what you actually want or what actually makes you happy. My mindset was to do everything “right,” and that all the pieces would fall into place and I would be “successful.”
But what is success? What does that even mean?
I consumed this idea that following a proscribed set of steps would lead me to this nebulous milestone of being “successful” but I never questioned what that meant, and no one ever really talked about it either. Having life framed as if there is only one logical step after another puts your anxiety level at 100 when you reach a point where there either isn’t a clear or logical next step OR there’s an abundance of logical next steps that are all appealing (or maybe they just seem appealing because it presents an option that you’d never considered within your narrow framework).
So what then, do you deviate and risk the choir of “I told you so’s” that only feed into your anxiety of being a
(relative) failure? Or do you stay in this predetermined lane that you’re not even sure you want to be in, but are sure doesn’t really bring you any joy?
I can’t say that I never took risks or deviated from the “plan,” but they were always very calculated risks, like changing majors or moving from one health related field to another. I have, on rare occasion, taken less calculated risks and some of them have been highly rewarding, but when they’re highly disappointing it’s like two steps forward and three steps back: I become paralyzed in my self-criticism.
Within the confines of an academic setting, where excellence is narrowly defined, I have thrived. As an adult, where there isn’t as much clarity, the feelings of inadequacy can be all consuming. When I finished my master’s degree I realized I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it. I started questioning if I had failed, if I went left when I should’ve went right, if I did the wrong thing. I saw peers who had done other things and gone on to have financially lucrative positions, I had classmates who were just as broke as I was but were clear about what they were passionate about and how to plug into and be adept leaders in their fields, and then there were others who were perfectly comfortable just hustling and doing their thing—traveling the world, being creative, advocating for their communities, and so on. But what was I doing and why?
Even now I have to admit that I took the easy way out (for me) and went back to school, started a doctoral program, rather than having to confront what I really wanted to do. And while I am trying to do this experience differently–prioritizing myself for once rather than just getting swept up in the grind of trying to prove something, not getting so tightly wound and stressed when something isn’t supposedly going the right way–I can’t help but notice that I did it again. That being called “Dr.” will somehow be life altering (it won’t).
Obviously comparing yourself to what you think other people are doing, through the window that is social media, is always a bad idea. I know that. I also know that what I catch myself feeling is a reaction to an online façade; it’s not real. These same people I’ve convinced myself of having it together really don’t, any more or less than I do, I know that. But I feel like they do, and that perception is often all that matters in terms of feeling like a relative failure…the failure of being an average adult, because I’m supposed to be exceptional.
Thankfully, I’ve had grounded friends and family members, who quickly remind me that I trash talk myself more than any other person would and that I minimize my accomplishments just because I don’t see them as extraordinary. And I need to stop.
Living in the space of “I’ll show you!” is a trap that so many people of color, especially women of color, easily fall into when living in a society that automatically underestimates you. All that time spent pursuing the goal of proving someone wrong–proving I’m exceptional, that I belong somewhere–is time that could have been better spent actively pursuing myself, discovering what I want, and reminding myself of the joy that an activity brought me as the reason for why I started doing it in the first place rather than getting caught up in the drama of being perfect at it.
I don’t know who said it first, or who said it in the context of Black womanhood in particular, but the act of self-love, self-prioritization, and self-compassion is radical and difficult. But I think it’s the antidote to habitually operating within this headspace of rigid perfectionism and demonstration. For that reason, I decided that in this last year of my twenties, my gift to myself is to work on breaking the cycle of setting unrealistic expectations for myself and then living in intense self-loathing when I don’t meet them. Instead I’m going to 1) acknowledge what I’ve accomplished (often), 2) set goals for myself that are intrinsically motivated, and 3) show compassion for myself when things inevitably don’t go as planned, and let it go.
Today is my 29th birthday, and I am already taking action on these goals of shifting my priorities, and am looking forward to seeing where they take me. Happy Birthday to me!
Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
And I’m feeling good