My dad likes to tell people that, if given the choice between reading a book or running a mile, I, his eldest daughter, would choose to do both.
He’s not wrong. To a fault, I’ve always been an obsessive overachiever. As a young kid, I scribbled out a list labeled “goals in life” on a scrap of notebook paper. I used to crush elementary school fundraising challenges; as an adult, I kept working from my hospital bed while in labor with my fourth baby, intent on hitting the earnings target I’d set for myself for the year.
I say this not to brag, but to talk about a peculiar thing that happened recently; that is, after years of being propelled by a singular focus on my own goals, I accomplished everything I’d been trying to accomplish and I realized I was miserable.
I’d spent years working toward my major goals: publishing a book, running a half-marathon, buying a house. But with all those behind me, I found myself adrift in a strange sort of aimless malaise. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
As it turns out, what I experienced is pretty common among overachievers. Melody Wilding, a performance coach and professor of human behavior at Hunter College in New York City, says she sees this phenomenon so frequently in her clients — so often, in fact, that she has a name for it: the “honor roll hangover.”
The honor roll hangover, Wilding explains, occurs among people with high-achieving personalities who work tirelessly to achieve their goals, but then go on to experience emptiness on the other side of reaching them. Picture someone who believes that climbing a mountain will lead them to a spectacular view at the top — only to get there and realize it’s just a bunch of rocks and now they are very, very tired.
“There’s disillusionment, there’s self-questioning, like ‘What did I do wrong? I did everything I was supposed to, but I’m still not happy,’” Wilding says. Along with disappointment, hopelessness, and even anger, she’s found that people going through the hangover are just plain exhausted when they finally hit their edge.
“A lot of times, we’re talking about people who have worked their butts off for the last 20 years,” she says, “and sometimes they just don’t have the energy to think about what they want or what’s next for them.”
Often enough, says Wilding, it’s not the goals that are the problem, but how we relate to them. “Typically, as overachievers, we over identify with the goals,” she says. “We hinge our self-worth on them. ‘If I reach that thing, I’m good and I’m worthy. And if I don’t, I’m bad and worthless and not good enough.’”
Picture someone who believes that climbing a mountain will lead them to a spectacular view at the top — only to get there and realize it’s just a bunch of rocks and now they are very, very tired.
Research has shown that the aggressive pursuit of goals can backfire, leading to reduced intrinsic motivation and burnout. Other research has looked at how goal-setting can become addictive: the brain’s reward system is activated by the process of setting and pursuing a goal, rather than reaching it. This may explain why serial goal-chasers keep at it even when they aren’t finding the happiness they thought they would.
Breaking out of that cycle — or avoiding it in the first place — means recognizing when goals are no longer serving you. The first step, says Sam Maniar, a psychologist and the president of the Center for Peak Performance consulting firm, is to look for three signs: when the goal-setting is causing more distress than benefit, when it no longer feels motivating, and when you become more fixated on the outcome than the process. If you’re working toward something that meets any of those criteria, that’s your signal to let it go, instead of continuing to chase it toward an imagined fulfillment that never materializes.
That last one — understanding the difference between process versus outcome — is particularly important as you evaluate the goals you’ve been setting for yourself. Process goals prompt the individual to focus on the “why” behind their actions, as opposed to outcome goals, which can be more about doing something just for the sake of saying you did. “For example, if you can learn to enjoy or appreciate the peace of mind you gain from running, as opposed to trying to run a certain time, you will likely persist longer over time,” Maniar explains.
Wilding advocates going cold turkey for a while — if you find yourself feeling adrift after reaching your goals, take a break before setting any new ones. Let yourself sit in this new goal-less state, without anything pushing you forward, and try a new motivation for doing things: because they’re fun, because they feel good.