Updated: Apr 16, 2021
If you’re reading this, you likely consider yourself a high achiever in one or more areas of your life. I would even venture to guess that your high-achieving self is fairly successful! And, that you have the drive, passion, and opportunity to set and reach many of your goals. On the flip side, once you reach your goals, you find little satisfaction, and then you set even higher goals for yourself. Eventually, your goals get to be too numerous and unrealistic, and you start to experience stress, disappointment, and anxiety. Possibly your anxiety gets to the point where it’s negatively impacting you and/or your family, and then you start to think, what is wrong with me? Why aren’t I happy?
When Should High Achievers Go to Therapy?
This is the point where many high achievers seek out therapy or counseling. I have sat in multiple intake sessions over the years with those who appear on the outside to be very successful and happy. But, in fact, they are in reality anxious, crying, and possibly even depressed. Life has caught up with you and you just aren’t able to reach your own expectations for yourself anymore. Whether those goals you set for yourself are professional or personal, career-oriented or family focused, you just aren’t able to do it anymore. As with all high achievers, you are likely looking for a quick fix. Something external that will make you feel better and reorganize your life so it’s more do-able. Your expectations of therapy are no different than anything else in your life. Of course, you want an “easy button” to fix yourself.
What Works with High Achievers
The type of therapy that I believe works best with high achievers is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. CBT examines the negative and anxious thinking patterns of high achievers, and challenges the strong “truths” that high achievers believe they have about themselves. These “truths” are also called false or limiting beliefs, distorted thoughts, cognitive distortions, or maladaptive thinking. It doesn't actually matter which term is used. The idea is that the thoughts themselves are causing you as a high achiever to feel the anxiety, guilt, or depression that is overcoming you. By identifying, confronting, and then changing your negative or anxious thought patterns, you can then create a different emotion and thus feel better.
Getting Started with CBT for High Achievers
The most difficult part of the CBT process for high achievers is accepting that your thought patterns are not set in stone and can be changed. And not only can your thoughts be changed, but if they are modified, the benefits to your overall mental health will be extremely valuable. As a high achiever, you have been successful in many areas of your life for the very reasons that are now causing you to seek therapy. Your own high expectations of yourself have gotten you to the point in your career where you are today, or with your family/friends in a way that makes sense to you. However, your limiting beliefs and distorted thoughts are no longer helping you but are hurting you. You’ve had years (20? 30? more?) to develop your thinking style and patterns, and changing them now can be a difficult concept to accept.
Therapy Can Be Hard Work
Learning new ways to think, and thus to feel, for high achievers is not always easy. As a high achiever, usually you’re fairly intelligent and are able to pick up new things easily, but when it comes to yourself, change is a hard pill to swallow (not that you’re taking pills for this, but you get what I mean). Why should you change something that’s worked for you for so long? Well, you’ve sought out counseling because things aren’t working for you anymore, and this is what needs to be different for you to Rediscover Your Everyday Joy again. Changing entire thinking patterns is not an easy task, and going through CBT will require effort and practice outside of your therapy sessions. But, you’re a high achiever, you can do this! If you set your mind to this process the same way you approach other areas of your life, I know you can be successful at this.
Common Distorted Thinking Patterns for High Achievers
Identifying the type(s) of maladaptive thoughts, or distorted thinking patterns, that you as a unique high achieving individual has, is the next step. There are several common types of limiting belief patterns that high achievers present with. In my experience as a therapist, here are the 3 most common:
Black and White Thinking
Polarized thinking, or black and white thinking, happens when you believe there is one right way or answer, and one wrong way or answer, to everything. You have difficulty with the gray area between these two extremes. You must be perfect, or you’re a failure. You must reach this goal, or you’re a bad person. You must be strong, or you’re weak. There is no excuse for the other option. You place yourself, others, and your situations into one of the two “good” or “bad” categories, not allowing for the complexities of most people and situations.
In this type of thinking, you often use or think the words “should”, “must”, “have to”, or “need to” in your thoughts and statements, usually directed towards yourself. Your high expectations, wherever these come from, result in a list of ironclad rules of behavior, for yourself and possibly for others. When you aren’t able to achieve these “should” thoughts, you end up feeling guilty and anxious. You believe that having these “should” thoughts are motivating, and perhaps they have been in the past, but now everything is catching up to you and it’s just not possible anymore to meet all of your expectations for yourself.
Another common way of thinking that you as a high achiever often fall into is catastrophizing. This sounds exactly like it means. You tend to take one small incident, or issue, and expand mental energy on spiraling your thoughts out of control. Often, to the point where a snowflake turns into the end of the world snowstorm. No matter what happens, you always expect the worst, and you take steps to make sure the worst never happens. This can be exhausting to you, both physically and mentally, and very difficult to break the pattern of magnifying or minimizing events or issues. Ways that you can tell if you’re catastrophizing are if you use or think the words “what if”: What if I get fired because I make a small mistake today at work? What if schools are closed forever and my kids never learn to read?
There are many other common types of distorted thinking patterns, if none of the above distorted thoughts describe you. You can talk to your therapist about getting a list of types of limiting beliefs that may be impacting your happiness and personal growth as a human. It is extremely beneficial to be able to know what type of limiting beliefs, or distorted thoughts, that you tend to have, because then you can start to name and identify your maladaptive thinking as such. Once you’ve labeled the type of limiting thought you’re having, then it is much easier to take the next steps, which include challenging that thought and replacing it with a more rational, or adaptive, thought.
Changing Your Negative and Anxious Thinking Patterns
Once you’ve gotten proficient at identifying your limiting beliefs and distorted thoughts, you then have an opportunity to challenge those thoughts and beliefs.
Some important questions to ask yourself, when you are starting to challenge your long-held beliefs and set-in-stone thoughts, are:
Is this really true, or just something that I believe to be true?
Do others think that this is true?
And, what are some other possible options or answers that are different from what I’ve always believed, regarding this issue?
It’s important here to take time to thoroughly think about and answer the above questions about your limiting thoughts. Once you’re at the point where your mind is open to other possibilities, then you can try out different replacement thoughts to see what resonates with you best. You’ll want to find a thought or belief that you can replace your distorted thought with that is strong enough so that you actually believe it. This new thought that you’re using is ideally less polarizing and less rigid than your original maladaptive belief, and the final result is that you generate a new, more positive emotion from your more rational and positive thought. And we all like to feel more positive emotions as it helps us feel better in general.
How Long Does Therapy with High Achievers Take?
If you commit to therapy and come in with the mindset that CBT can be helpful for you, that is the very first step. The actual work of going through the CBT process and identifying, challenging, and then finally changing your thinking patterns is the bulk of the work you’ll be doing in therapy. Of course, you cannot just learn and do CBT in a vacuum. You’ll likely have come into therapy with specific areas of your life that have been impacted by your distorted thinking patterns. In therapy for high-achievers, we will want to talk about and process these issues. This is a great way to get examples of actual distorted thoughts. And, go through the CBT process with your therapist both in session and outside of your sessions.
The one thing that high achievers tend to want to do in therapy right away is to get answers from their therapist. However, in order to go through the CBT process with your therapist, you need to get to know and trust your therapist first. As a high achiever, you tend to rely on yourself as the authority for most things in your life. Giving up this control and giving it a therapist, whom you barely know and have just met, can be a challenging process. That is why the relationship development and connection with your therapist is the very first thing you’ll need to work on in therapy. I usually don’t introduce the concept of CBT in my therapy sessions with clients until at least the 2nd or 3rd session, and many times it takes longer than that.
Finally, and in general, doing CBT for specific issues in your life tends to be a shorter-term type of therapy than, say, depth work from a psychodynamic perspective. Usually my clients find they understand and are able to apply the basic CBT skills to their lives in 3-6 months. Of course, that is an average. I have many clients who elect to stay on doing less active therapy work, and more maintenance-type or accountability appointments for months to years. Think about it – you’re trying to change years, if not decades, of how you are thinking. How you've been behaving. And, finally, how you've been operating in the world. It’s not going to happen quickly. But it will happen, I’ve seen many successes using CBT in working with high achievers. The long-term benefits of changing how you think are innumerable.
Options for Therapy for High-Achievers
When you put your mind to it, and learn to trust your therapist, high achievers tend to do well in therapy. You could do individual therapy or group therapy, and both are highly effective with high achievers depending on what you’re coming into counseling for. One final challenge that high achievers face, is relapse. Going back out into the world armed with a new way of thinking, high achievers can tend to get complacent about their new abilities and after a time may lapse back into old, rigid thinking patterns. The changes you’ve made in therapy must be maintained for this to have a long-lasting impact on your life. Support groups and process groups tend to be a good support for high achievers long after you’ve completed the active therapy part of your treatment.
If you’re interested in learning more about high achievers or getting more in touch with your emotional side, check out our recent blogs 1 Way High Achievers Break Through Stagnation and 3 Strategies for Increasing your Emotional Self-Awareness. As a high achiever, you have incredible strengths and skills that have gotten you far in your life, but sometimes it’s necessary to take a break and see how much you can accomplish by changing how you do things.
How We Can Help
If you are a high achiever interested in therapy for high-achievers, we can help. In fact, we can help you in-person or with online therapy in Colorado. So, if you would like to talk to someone more about how we can help you, follow these simple steps:
Contact us today for a free 20-minute phone consultation
Begin your journey towards a calmer, more relaxing life
Other Therapy Services Available at Catalyss Counseling:
Here at Catalyss Counseling, we want to meet all of your counseling needs in the Denver area. Our supportive therapists provide depression counseling, therapy for caregiver stress, grief and loss therapy, stress management counseling and more. We also have specialists in trauma and PTSD, women's issues, pregnancy and postpartum depression or anxiety, pregnancy loss and miscarriage, and birth trauma. For therapists, we can also provide clinical supervision! We look forward to connecting with you to help support your journey today.
Shannon Heers is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, guest blogger, and owner of Catalyss Counseling in Englewood, CO. Shannon helps adults in professional careers manage anxiety, depression, work-life balance, and grief and loss. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.