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The Dark Side Of Doing What You Love: Why High Achievers End Up Being Their Work

© Victoria Heath, Unsplash
© Victoria Heath, Unsplash

Velina Getova is an organizational psychologist, performance coach and founder of NotYourTherapy.com. Her purpose is to change the perception of mental health in the workplace. She runs 1-on-1 sessions and groups in the business creating space for people to solve their challenges. Outside of work, she loves trаvelling, healthy cooking and advising startups in the community. 

Maya* woke up in cold sweat at 3 am. It was her second day on holiday, and she still couldn’t switch off after months of hard work. Her new dream job had turned into a subconscious nightmare that was haunting her in her time with her family. Leading the CRM integration in her new company was exciting, but also pretty challenging. Quality meant everything. Even a single bug could cost her employer a fortune. 

Ivaylo* left the board meeting feeling nauseous. He had to project confidence to his investors and over 30 employees, but his nerves were shot. No one expected that after years of rapid growth, they wouldn’t be able to pay wages this month; maybe the next one too. It was hard for him to see a way forward, especially after the endless power games with his co-founders. What he built with so much passion was at risk. 

He could barely breathe and felt as if his whole existence was at risk. 

What do these two stories have in common? Maya and Ivaylo have both fallen into the trap of making their work the core of who they are. 

Becoming your job

Working on something you enjoy and find meaningful can only be compared to falling in love. The feeling when you’re a 100% consumed by what you do, think about it 24/7 and ask yourself how you ever lived before it. Just like in romantic relationships, losing yourself in the other person, or in this case – in your job or new business, isn’t healthy for anyone. 

Many entrepreneurs are opening up on the trap of becoming your company and the deadly cycle that follows – for their mental health, business performance, and investor returns. My 2013 research on founder psychology captures how entrepreneurs aged 22-35 shape their sense of self through the stories they construct and tell about their startups. When business equals identity, though, company failure is a personal failure. Every criticism from your co-founders means you’re never good enough for them. Every “no” from an investor feels like an attack on your values system. 

This is tricky enough for startup founders, but high achieving employees are also falling into this trap. The need to succeed in a hustling work environment creates hustler-workers who pride themselves on being busy and working hard. I call them the “Badge of honor” hustlers who derive their self-worth from progress at work. There’s a hidden mental model that hijacks their behavior without them even realizing: 

Hustling = Achievement = I’m worthy = I’m alive. 

In other words, it gives you permission to live. 

Deriving self-worth from a dream job that others can be envious of can lead to personality shifts and a typical Stockholm syndrome with severe consequences. Two years ago, an engineer at one of the tech giants committed suicide. His widow shared that his whole personality had changed after he started working there, and he would say or do things he wouldn’t normally do. 

I often meet talented individuals, like that engineer, who know their job is hurting them but feel unable to unhook themselves.

The failure anxiety of entrepreneurs and high achievers

Entrepreneurs and ultra-successful people are expected to be strong by default. They’re the ones who say: I’m not afraid to fail and even attend the Failure conferences. 

Yet, working with such clients for years taught me to read between the lines. They use other phrases like “I hate this” or “I’m angry” which are actually a disguise for fear (the one thing they never allow themselves to say or feel). Emotions are more straightforward than we imagine. Despite how different we all are, two emotions drive all human behavior: fear and love. “All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear,” says Elisabeth Kubler Ross. 

Therefore, not feeling fear is impossible: if you try to hide it – it comes out in other forms. 

The greatest barrier of a courageous leader

We know from social psychology that experience shapes our sense of self. Take a simple question: as a child, did you believe that your parents would love you more if you had good grades at school? This can create a fear of not being enough just as you are, which usually follows into adulthood and fuels high achievement. Feeling not enough inside creates an obsession with adding “enough” on the outside: a constant need for external validation. It can even lead to “putting an armor” as Brene Brown writes beautifully in her book Dare to Lead: 

The greatest barrier to courageous leadership is not fear. In fact, some of the bravest leaders  {…..} experience fear every day. The biggest barrier to daring leadership is how we respond to our fear — it’s our armor that gets in the way. 

Similarly, working with some of the bravest people in Bulgaria and London, I learned that the best thing you can do to handle both failure and success at work is to better know your self-worth and face your fears: not try to hide them. 

5 ways to stop identifying with your work 

#1 Depersonalization: ask yourself who you are outside of work. Grow your “net” worth as a human, parallel to growing your revenue by building support networks, learning new skills that are not related to work, or doing something you’re afraid of.

#2 Giving: ask the people you care about how you contribute to their lives. Take your focus away from the beasts in your head by helping someone every day: a colleague, your co-founder, a random old lady on the street. Turning the spotlight away from yourself onto what you can do for others dissolves the constant need to shine.

#3 Humility: question your beliefs and adopt the default attitude that you could often be wrong. Holding things lightly doesn’t make you meek, it makes you more resilient to failure when you get things wrong and opens new avenues for growth and innovation. 

#4 Emotional Distance: If you choose to work hard and dedicate a significant period of your life to your company or dream job, learn how to deliver without getting emotionally involved. Focus on your actions and the process of creating, not so much on the meaning you attach to the final result.

#5 Physical strength: don’t forget you have a body, not only a head. A lot of us live in our minds, disconnecting from our body experiences, and forgetting to take care of our physical health. Exercise routines build a positive self-image. Explore what sports excite you, and once you find one, be consistent with it, especially when things get stressful. This adds up to a well-rounded self, leaving less space for your work identity to take up your entire life.

Remember Ivaylo who couldn’t take a proper breath after that board meeting? That day made him realize that while hustling to build the company he dreamt of, he had pushed his basic personal, physical and emotional needs to the background. And instead of self-pitying himself and letting situations overcome him, he consciously decided to act. Ivaylo started seeing a therapist and resumed his circuit classes. Exercise helped him sleep better and feel more grounded during tough conversations. When he felt stuck in negative thoughts about the business, he learned to practice dissociation: putting his worries on a movie screen and watching from the audience seat. He was able to see things differently and create some distance between himself and his work experiences. It overall improved his ability to make decisions, lead his team out of the downward spiral and find fulfillment outside of work.

*Names have been changed.

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