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The Danger in Letting Society's Definition of Achievement Define Us

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I find myself in a perpetual state of anxiety. I return home after a day of work as a resident psychiatrist, only to find myself feeling anxious and guilt-ridden for wanting to watch TV.

“Am I achieving enough?” This is the constant question occupying my thoughts when I take time to unwind. I hold a medical degree and master’s degree and am working through completion of my residency. However, I find myself constantly anxious about not doing enough, not achieving enough.

My feelings are not unique…

We live in a society that equates busy with important, awards accomplishments and is obsessed with achievement. A society that has made us believe we must justify our existence with contributions, achievements and productivity. We punish ourselves for not accomplishing what we think we should as quickly as we should. We become depressed when we fail, anxious when we quit and guilt-ridden when we don’t try.

When and how did we turn into a society obsessed with achievements?

The breeding of an anxious society starts in childhood. We instill the neurosis in the most impressionable, our children, through rewarding based on external achievements and punished based on the same. We reward higher grades with importance, with self-worth. We numerically rank our children by intellectual ability and make them to believe they are somehow sub-par for failing to score high on an arbitrary numerical grading system that sets apart those with superior “intellectual abilities.” We learn that underachievement equates to shame, and with intellectual and athletic superiority comes pride.

We learn from a tender age to compare and compete, which only strengthens when we step into adulthood. As we move into adolescence and adulthood, the constant stream of social comparison seemed to chase us around via the internet. We are made to believe that high achievers are everywhere. We sre bombarded with images of peers who appear to be accomplishing seemingly great things, in high-paying jobs and “impressive things accomplished.”

We are constantly reminded us of everyone else’s accomplishments and prosperous lives, while making us believe that our time is wasted if we are not producing. The specific accomplishments vary from person to person, but they tend to have the same theme: to be extrinsic, glamorous, public and “insta-worthy.”

Somewhere between chasing goals, checking off check-lists and creating vision boards, we unknowingly as a society have tied our self-worth to our achievements. We have come to find validation and self-esteem through outside, visible accomplishments.

The problem with tying self-worth to be a reflection of personal achievement is that it leaves us feeling perpetually incomplete and constantly searching for wholeness. The thirst for achieving and accomplishing never ends. There is always more to achieve, higher mountains to climb and more money to be earned.

Make no mistake, achievements are wonderful! After all, they represent hard work and deserve to be praised. However, we have learned to take that 60 second dopamine rush and quickly start chasing after the next big thing.

The problem arises when we start to live for and tie our worthiness to productivity. Self-loathing arises when we realize we can never be fully fulfilled as there is always someone smarter, faster and more accomplished.

Along with the realization that we can never be enough, we have come to be anxiety-ridden, suicide-driven, and as Elizabeth Wurtzel put it, so called “Prozac Nation.” Achievement is blatantly valued above health. Phrases such as “I haven’t slept in days” or “I’m too busy,” are worn like a badge of honor and viewed as virtuous. When in reality, they are extremely detrimental to our mental and physical wellbeing.

The point is not to stop aiming for greatness. On the contrary, ambition is what keeps society from stagnation. It’s about stopping the pattern of punishing ourselves for not accomplishing what we think we should as quickly as we should. It’s about not giving into social pressure and high expectations. It’s about remembering that educational and career achievements don’t define our identity and self-worth.

We cannot keep feeding the connection of self-worth to personal achievement, or the idea that we are not already whole simple by virtue of being alive.

Image courtesy of the contributor

Originally published: May 29, 2020
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