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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
Self-Hatred and High-Achievement
It might seem – at first glance – as though the people we term high-achievers could not possibly have any relationship to self-hatred: they are the ones who did exceptionally well in exams, whom the teachers admired, who won places at the best universities, who graduated with honours, who got into law and medical schools, who founded thriving businesses, who live in the wealthiest parts of town, who are up early in the morning preparing themselves healthy breakfasts before a day of important meetings. Surely we can’t impute that these might be sufferers from the ravages of self-disgust?
Except, of course, that it would rarely occur to anyone who did not harbour a high degree of self-suspicion to undertake so many outsize efforts to impress and to make a mark upon the world.
The high-achievers, for all their accomplishments, cannot trust in a basic idea: that it might be acceptable to be themselves, outside of any acclaim, notice or distinction. Simply being is never enough, their right to exist can only be assured by constant doing. Their frantic activity masks an underlying unquenchable doubt as to their acceptability. There can be no lasting respite through their tools of choice. Holidays are a particular trial, free time has been careful expunged from their diaries, it may have been many years since they enjoyed a day without commitments. The moment that they are at a loose end, anxiety arises: what are they meant to be doing? What have they forgotten to take care of?
No one can doubt what we owe to the high-achievers. They are the ones who build the skyscrapers, who explore distant planets, who drive the stock market to new heights, who start businesses and write films and books. We would all be the poorer without them.
But our respect shouldn’t rob us of our ability to appraise the costs that their ways of life exact. The wealth of nations is built upon the troubles of the individual psyche. The high-achievers have been driven to act not simply from talent or creativity, energy and skill (though these are no doubt present as well) but from a primordial sense that there is something shameful about them in their basic state, and that they must hence clothe themselves in the garments of success to escape the humiliation of their true selves.
No wonder that their efforts are so often self-defeating. It may for a long time seem as if they were after money, power, acclaim and distinction but these are merely substitutes for their fundamental, but unknown goal: a sense of basic adequacy. The disjuncture explains the curious lassitude and sadness that may accompany high-achievers at some of their moments of greatest triumph. Finally, they have sold the company. At last they have won an international prize. But they are likely to feel hollow in the days and years that follow, as they confusedly recognise that every possible achievement has been gained but that none of it has, somehow, been sufficient to quell the pain and restlessness within.
It can be counted as close to good fortune if high-achievers stumble and fail somewhere along their journey, if they are tripped up by an unexpected bankruptcy, scandal or economic downturn. The reversal may prompt a mental breakdown and a period of rest, in which there is a sliver of hope, for it contains a chance to see that their manic pursuit of success was all along masking a terror about unloveability, which now has a chance to be quelled in more realistic and effective ways. There is an opportunity to acknowledge that one has been playing the wrong game all along – and that the true problem never had anything to do with a lack of prizes, and everything to do with a burning conviction that one might need so many of them.
It is a measure of our collective delusion that we are so ready to be proud of high-achievers and so slow to detect the wound that powers them on. It would be a less gilded world, but also a far happier one, in which we were readier to reassure the self-hating titans of success that they were worthy of love all along.