When you hear the term “high achiever,” which types of people come to mind? Many may visualize successful entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, and athletes. You may think of these types of people as confident, charismatic, and passionate about their impact on the world. There is no doubt that high achievers help make the world go round. They are goal-setters, energizers, dreamers, and leaders. They can motivate others to do great things and positively influence the lives of those around them. High achievers often have soaring expectations for themselves and others, even their significant others. To better understand high achievers and how they show up in relationships, we reached out to Dr. Kayleigh Hunnicutt, Ph.D., to gain more insight into her clinical observations in working with high-achieving clients. 

Defining a “high achiever”

First, what does it mean to be a “high achiever?” 

KH: A high achiever is someone who is persevering or striving continuously for a goal or a set of goals that have meaning to them. And this is usually over a notable period of time. [relevance?] They are always striving, always searching for how to move forward in pursuit of their goals. 

What are some positive characteristics you’ve observed in high achievers?

KH: High-achieving individuals tend to be very conscientious. People perceive high achievers to be responsible, reliable, and passionate — they have grit. I’ve found that high-achievers can regularly focus their attention very specifically toward a goal and can organize a path to get there pretty quickly. 

High achievers also tend to have high resilience. Even when things get hard, they keep coming back to figure out a way to achieve their goals. High achievers are ambitious and are often seen as successful by their peers. They also have a strong desire to learn and hone their skills. They are hungry to learn and grow. Working with high achievers in therapy is great as they are typically quick to learn and implement the skills we are working on. 

What are some challenges that high achievers face? 

KH: While high achievers tend to be solution-focused, this can also lead to them having some areas of inflexibility. For instance, they may have difficulty transitioning from one role to another, such as being the boss at work to a helper to their spouse at home. 

Perfectionism and over-achieving can also present some challenges for high achievers. This can look like “nit-picking” their performance even if it’s considered superior by other people’s standards. It’s important to note that not all high achievers are perfectionists or overachievers. However, when they are engaging in these patterns of thoughts/behaviors (i.e., perfectionism, overachieving) it becomes problematic. 

For instance, high achievers who tend to be more perfectionistic may have a hard time deviating from their plans or goals. They can become a bit “tunnel-visioned” and it can be difficult for them to see beyond their intended path. Simply put, the path of perfectionism can lead a high achiever to believe that if they let go of their standards, everything will fall apart. 

High achiever blind spots?

Being a high achiever is not in any way a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite inspiring to watch a high achiever set and accomplish tasks and goals with grit and determination. However, Dr. Hunnicutt identified a few blind spots where high achievers should be wary.

  1. High achieving as a coping skill – The high achiever gets a dopamine boost from achieving a goal. Because this feels so good, they continue to set more and more goals. Endless goal-setting is sometimes a tactic to avoid pain or emotional distress in other areas of their life. So while on the surface, high achieving can look like success or happiness, never-ending goal-setting behaviors may serve the deeper function of fighting off uncomfortable emotions or conditions like anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, etc. 
  2. External vs. internal motivation – A high achiever may be externally motivated if they continually seek recognition, status, or material items such as money, cars, boats, etc. Success, even self-worth, is associated with the accumulation of external rewards. Conversely, internal motivation is usually more fulfilling as it comes from a place of purpose and meaning and can be tapped into at any time. The internally motivated high achiever can ask themselves, “does this align with my purpose and values personally or professionally?” If they can say yes, this is usually enough for them to continue on their journey. Striving for more externally (or, just less intrinsically) motivated reasons can be associated with more negative outcomes, particularly in the workplace and in well-being. Intrinsic motivation is based on alignment with our values and purpose, and being connected from a place of intrinsic motivation appears to be associated with more favorable variables in these domains.
  3. Hustling for self-worth – Some high achievers only associate self-validation and self-worth with high achievement; they genuinely believe there is no other way to find self-worth. A common reason for this might be that the high-achieving individual may have only received praise and positive sentiments from parents or caregivers when they achieved the top accolade, prize, or grade. In these instances, high achievement can be heavily associated with feelings of love and acceptance.

While research does support high achievement being related to positive parenting in some circumstances, what I often observe in the clinical setting is that if the high achiever’s upbringing was more chaotic, unpredictable, stressful, or neglectful, I then, (anecdotally) see hustling for self-worth to be much more predominant. In other words, healthy methods for obtaining validation that one is unconditionally loved was possibly not modeled well for them. Thus, achievement becomes an easy placeholder, in the absence of the knowledge of what healthy love may look like from the environment.

High achievers in relationships

What are some common themes you observe in high achievers in relationships? 

Goal and expectation alignment

KH: One thing that comes to mind is high achievers and their partners should be clear on their values, visions, and expectations of the relationship. Because high achievers often have high expectations in life, they need to be careful not to project their goals onto their partner. And if the goal alignment is creating a rift in the relationship, I will often ask the high achiever client, “where did this expectation of them come from and did your partner ever agree to this?” 

If the high achiever is concerned about their partner not being on board with their goal(s), I may ask, “Are you willing to accept that your partner may not be ready or willing to pursue that same goal?” If the high achiever is not in a place where they are ready to accept this, it’s important to explore why this feels hard and what is blocking the high achiever from recognizing their partner’s fears or reservations. Conversely, if the high achiever is ready to accept and respect their partner’s differing point of view, it can be helpful to explore where the high achiever can be flexible with their partner on the path toward achievement.

Roles and boundaries

KH: Sometimes, I see high achievers treating their relationship like another goal, possibly expecting their partner to fulfill another role (i.e., business partner) for them outside of being their friend and romantic partner. Some partnerships can do this well because goals and values line up and are well-defined. However, other couples struggle if one partner feels too much pressure to embody many different roles within a relationship. The struggle is especially apparent if the non-high achiever did not agree to it or it simply did not align with their goals or values. If the high achiever’s partner is experiencing this pressure, consider outsourcing those roles (another business partner, financial planner, etc.) so both partners’ points of view can be honored through appropriate oundaries.  

The reason behind the pressure

KH: If a couple feels building pressure because of a goal the high achiever has set or proposed, examining the reason behind the pressure may be beneficial. Understanding whether the stress is fear-based or coming from a place of real meaning, purpose, or even joy. If it’s the latter, you typically are not feeling the push and urgency. If it’s more fear-based, it may be worth unpacking and exploring where those fears are rooted. 

Resources and next steps

Do you recommend any resources (books, articles, podcasts, etc.) for high achievers and their partners to learn more?

I usually recommend books that are best fit for why the high achiever is striving, what they are struggling with, and/or what “gaps” they may be looking to fill. This means there is not just “one” book recommendation I typically give. Here are some of my favorites to recommend, depending on any one of those factors.

For example:

-If the person is struggling with finding more meaning in their life and managing difficult emotions:  

The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris

-If the person has unresolved family dynamics:

Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents – Lindsay Gibson

Adult Children of Alcoholics – Janet Woititz (also good for dysfunctional families in general; is older but often holds generally true still)

-If the person struggles with the way in which they talk to themselves (e.g., being hard on themselves):

The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Gerber

The CBT Workbook by Tiffany Loggins

Get Out of Your Head (and Into Your Life) by Steven Hayes and Spencer Smith

-If the person struggles with perfectionism:

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism by Sharon Martin

The Perfectionism Workbook by Taylor Newendorp

***NOTE:  The struggle with perfectionism, in my experience, is one of the most difficult to address via a book only; I would lightly suggest seeing someone to help directly address these patterns. 

-If the person struggles with self-regulation, flexibility, and managing relationships:

Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Goleman

-If the person is interested in Grit, a “healthy” characteristic of high achieving:

Grit by Angela Duckworth

-If the person would like to improve their relationships:

Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman

How can therapy help support high achievers?

If you or your partner are high achievers and are experiencing stress individually and in your relationship, try therapy. Talking through these challenges can help you and your partner gain more clarity. Therapy can help you understand your self-worth and how it can positively impact your relationship. If you are ready to explore, we are here to help. Reach out to us for a therapy appointment if you live in Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina or Texas.