The Shadow Side Of Being A High Achiever


I recently had the opportunity to participate in a Women’s Leadership Retreat. It was a pivotal experience for me, but not for the reasons I expected.

During the retreat I had the privilege of spending several days with a group of highly accomplished senior female leaders. The cohort consisted of incredible women doing difficult and noble work across a broad spectrum of industries and government departments.

Over the course of the retreat as trust grew, many of the participants shared that they secretly wrestled with feelings of low self-worth.  For these women, the inner critic was an ever-present force and the imposter syndrome a constant companion. They struggled to reconcile these feelings with their high profile positions and as a consequence this was something that was really hard for them to admit and to talk about.

It deeply saddened me that many of the wonderful women at the retreat felt like something was “wrong with them” and so, they were suppressing their feelings or beating themselves up about them.

The teary confessions of one of the women there who was working in medicine and was literally saving lives every single day will always stay with me. She had the courage and vulnerability to share that she felt like she had no value in the world.

I started to wonder whether there was a connection between low self-worth and being a “high achiever”.

Is it possible that many highly successful leaders who rise to the top of their professions are propelled by “high achiever” attributes fuelled by a hidden shadow of low self-worth?

According to Elaine N. Aron Ph.D. there is a strong link between low self-worth and being a “high achiever”. In her book The Undervalued Self Elaine explains this link and provides guidance on how to navigate towards a new way of being.

“We all have an undervalued self buried deep inside, a part that can make us feel worthless. It may rise to the surface now and then or, for some of us, it may be a constant companion. It makes us doubt ourselves or feel shy, anxious, or even depressed. It results in “low self esteem,” the most common problem addressed by psychotherapists and self-help teachers and the root of most other psychological issues. It is not always easy to know when we have fallen into ranking and undervaluing ourselves even to the point of feeling worthless, because we each employ largely unconscious self-protections to keep us from feeling shame. (…) We have six main self-protections: minimizing, blaming, noncompeting, overachieving, inflating, and projecting. These self-protections sometimes allow us to stay unaware of, or avoid, our worst feelings. (…) They are attempts to fool ourselves, and perhaps others, about our rank. (…) You will have to strip them away before you can see, feel, and eliminate your feelings of worthlessness.”

Driving home from the retreat I made a commitment to play a role in helping leaders make sense of that voice inside their head that tells them that they are not worthy and that they are not good enough.

Most of all, I just want them to know that they are not alone.

I have written this article to start a conversation about this important topic and to share what I have learnt so far about self-worth and it’s connection to being a “high achiever”.

You can take this short quiz to understand whether you undervalue yourself. Building self-awareness in this area is foundational work on the journey to activating more of your potential at work and in life.

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