What it really means to be an overachiever and how to deal with one

Are you married, fit, popular and multi-talented in several disciplines? There's a word for people like you: overachiever. 

But life for overachievers isn't as rosy as it may seem.

Who are the overachievers?

Think people like British comedian David Walliams OBE. 

In addition to mastering comedy, he also swam the entire Thames - 140 miles, raising millions for BBC charity Sport Relief and is now a successful actor, a top TV talent show judge and a best-selling children's author - with seven of his books having been made into films, and now, west end plays. He's not yet 50.

Or a classic Australian example is Andrew Leigh. 

The trained lawyer can run a marathon in way under three hours; he regularly attracts fascinating, star guests on his podcast The Good Life; he's married with three sons and he last year won the prize for Best Australian Science Writing 2018. Oh, and whilst doing all this, he also finds time to be the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury. He's also not yet 50.

The undertone

But there's something about the term "overachiever" that carries a slightly sneering and bitter note, does it not? Which is very much akin to tall poppy syndrome.

According to Lysn Psychologist Noosha Anzab, we need to consider re-branding the overachiever - or at the very least, alter our flippant vocabulary.

"There's an edge to the term 'overachiever'; it's a bit dark" she explains.


She describes an overachiever as someone who goes above and beyond: "So we could start by changing the tone - and calling them 'doers.'"

More than their fair share?

These people, though, are much more than just doers; They excel. At everything, from physical prowess to intellectual rigour, along with a dogged drive; a formidable combination. 

They excel over and above the careers they're known for, and often have many strings to their bow. Nothing they do is ever half-hearted; they maximise their generous potential. 

Another term for them, according to psychologist Noosha Anzab, is Type A personalities.  

"A-type personalities are work obsessed and competitive. Type Bs are more relaxed and less highly strung" she says.

The Type A/B personality theory has its critics, as Anzab acknowledges. It can feel slightly binary and reductive. 

Unique difficulties

Nevertheless, it's perhaps under-reported that these people - overachievers, Type As or doers - face challenges. 

It can be hard to find empathy for people who seemingly breath success.

But that overlooks the problems they must confront. "They have a false sense of what it takes to be successful" Anzab says. "They consistently overstretch themselves - leading to stress, exhaustion and inevitable burn out."

Managing skills

Watch out if you have one for a manager.

"They always go beyond what's expected so they'll believe everyone should commit 200 per cent instead of 100 per cent or less" says family psychologist Dr. R.Y. Langham

This can be hell for their staff.

 "They may view their overachieving boss, as anal, pushy, demanding, and hard-nosed. However, the overachieving boss may view this behaviour as simply wanting the best from their employees. These two mentalities may be incompatible, leading to resentment and hostility." 

Put simply, "they're micro managers" Anzab says.

"They associate overachieving with doing and if you're not doing, you're lazy."

No second place

There can be a lack of empathy, too.

"They're quite black and white" she says. "If you value work/life balance, you don't want to do four hours overtime. They want you to make every minute count and don't get that some days at work your productivity won't be as amazing."

To be friends with one can be a constant one upmanship.

"It's not spiteful or rude, that's just their blueprint" Anzab says.

The positives

It isn't all doom.

Occupational Health Psychologist Lisa Johnson spells out the positives to being friends or partners with these people.

"Although intense, it can be very fulfilling - they'll open you up to adventures and opportunities out of the norm, taking you on an amazing journey."

What happens at the pinnacle?

So you're an overachiever and you've reached your zenith. Two words may strike fear into your heart: now what?

"People hate feeling stagnant" Anzab says. "It can be paralysing and trigger anxiety."

So at the zenith point, overachievers are encouraged to do one thing by therapists: play.

"We concentrate on being still first" Anzab says. "Then we say, let's just have some fun now."

It directs the focus away from hyper-productivity and into the realm of a leisure activity that doesn't result in an A-grade or a bonus. 

It's something many of us, overachievers or not, have forgotten how to do, Anzab says.

"It's a myth adults need to grow up."

"The overachiever will think it's weird to stop and be still but that's our medicine. Fun is self care."

Twitter: @garynunn1