The link between depression and over-achievement gets in the media cyclically and when it does it gets a lot of attention. Most recently, the flurry of reporting and analysis was brought on by the suicide of Martin Senn, a former CEO of Zurich Insurance and was linked by media to a similar incidents of the prominent business people taking their lives (and reminded me of less prominent ones). As I am blessed to be surrounded by very driven and gifted friends, and have had some experience of the world of over-achievement, I am intrigued and worried by the connection – one of the more striking scenes of my life has been of one high-flyer arguing with his colleagues how he has nothing to look forward to in life, all of this over a lovely lunch, on a sunny day in the best restaurant in town.
Recently, my own soul searching brought me to a work of Mr Senn’s compatriot – Alice Miller. Miller’s book “The Drama of the Gifted Child”, a popular hit published in 1979 which still causes some ripples, explores the link between depression, over-achievement (or “grandiosity”) and parental (mis)behaviour that propels many bright, young things into existential crises. As it resonated strongly with my experiences and observations, it prompted me to think about the attraction of some high-pressure environments to Miller’s subjects and their effect on them. (It goes without saying that although I am intrigued by Miller’s theory, I do not buy it 100% and I can imagine that proving it scientifically would be impossible).
In order to make parallels, I will try to distill Miller’s key messages (I strongly suggest reading this short book if you have even a smidge of interest in this).
Drawing from personal and clinical experiences, Miller posits that gifted children can develop “narcissistic disturbance” if their parents (especially mothers) treat them as extensions of their own frustrated needs and ambitions, and do not allow them to develop authentic selves in early childhood. These parents can only accept their child if she conforms to their (usually high) standards; their under-developed sense of self-worth requires the child to support it through admiration and could not stand challenge. As the child is only given attention, respect and love if it satisfies parental wishes, the child losses the connection to its needs early on, and learns that it should strive to satisfy other’s expectations rather than strive to develop autonomously (effectively becoming like her insecure parent). The “gifted” part plays a role, as presumably only children that understand desires of their parents early on, can develop “false selves” – the ones who are not attuned to parental expectation, would get into conflict with parents which would make them aware of the problem. In adulthood, the narcissistically disturbed person is locked in a cycle of grandiosity and depression: she craves achievement and ensuring recognition to compensate for lack of parental support for her authentic self, or she feels empty, as no one, either when she feels unable to satisfy the expectations of her false self or when she cannot identify what she actually wants. Through life she essentially repeats behavioural patterns learnt in childhood by conforming her “self” to external desire and effacing any independence. Miller also notes that those with narcissistic disturbance are often contemptuous of those “weaker” than themselves in order to compensate for lack of authentic self-worth. All of this is in contrast to those with healthy narcissism, who are able to acknowledge and fulfill own desires and tolerate others, because their parents did not use them to prop their own egos and they have developed independently.
The only way out of the predicament is for the afflicted to become aware of own “false selves”, accept the toxic role (often idolised) parents played in their life, and mourn over the loss of the opportunity to develop authentic selves when it was timely.
As you can imagine, it does not exactly make for an uplifting read, but it is a well worth one: it brims with very personal observations about the loneliness of existential crises, abounds with examples from patients’ and great people’s lives (especially Herman Hesse) and offers plenty of explosive ammo to use against your unsuspecting parents in the war of proving them responsible for all problems in your life (“Battlefield: Christmas”). For its strengths, I found it difficult to imagine anyone’s parents not somewhat making the mistakes Alice Miller notes (which is not necessarily a criticism) and the idea of the “true self” born in vacuum a bit tenuous. However, as I mentioned previously, a lot of traits of the “narcissistically disturbed” gifted (men-) children (which I will refer to using the more popular and less cumbersome term “insecure over-achievers”) reminded me of a few people I’ve encountered and their professional choices. Indeed, as Miller deals with lives of the “gifted” there is a significant amount of commentary about the excessive focus on careers by the insecure over-achievers.
Firstly, it is easy to see how an all-immersive job can be appealing to Miller’s type of over-achiever and potentially lead to their doom.
In insecure over-achievers’ minds, a needy client or superior fills the role of the needy parents: their wishes (and whims) are often seen as unquestionable and worth sacrificing own autonomy for. Many corporations also pride themselves on “objective” assessment criteria, which can feed their grandiosity-seeking egos (“if I am making it here, then I must have truly made it”), especially as they validate their choice of developing certain skills (hard work, intellectual focus, hyper -awareness of other’s needs and expectations). Finally, the often all-consuming work environment (12+ hour days! Great perks!) leaves little time for the over-achiever to be exposed to less easily controllable and potentially creaking areas of own life (emotional emptiness, lack of outside interests, problematic family, etc.). To make things easier, it is also common that there is an implicit default “life plan” extending beyond the job, imputed to those who need it (as they have no authentic desires themselves) and against which they are judged – covering big decisions (when one should marry, where one should live), and daily ones (how they should look, which ties they should wear, where and what one should eat).
As they stay in these environments, the dynamic also serves to validate and bolster their false selves.
As they rise through ranks they can establish a sort of parent-child (or sadomasochistic) dynamic with junior colleagues, while still being pressed on by superiors: they can demand junior’s unquestioning service and even expressions of admiration (in many of these environments moaning about insolence of juniors is a common way for middle management to bond). Additionally, people who are somehow different from the insecure over-achievers’ group (other parts of the organisation, other organisations, other professions – basically anyone who is not them) are routinely discussed disparagingly as less capable and worthy – much of this behavior is captured and satirised in the American Psycho.
Sadly, all of this can only last so long: the pull of grandiosity is either frustrated (e.g. through slower progression, redundancy) or weakens (e.g. as one hears the creaking elsewhere in life). The over-achievers either try to course-correct (in more or less extreme ways), shackle themselves to their “false selves” by making it more difficult to escape (e.g. marrying, having children, getting a very expensive mortgage) or engage in self-destructive behaviours. In any case, there is an existential crisis (which seem to often happen in late 20s or approaching mid-life), which may or may not manifest itself in a full-blown depression, but is nevertheless painful.
So if you hear the ever annoying neurotic laughter of a cocky young professional over brunch, be kind – it is tough in there if Miller is to be believed. Note that, as Miller herself identified, the drama is not reserved to those in conformist professions – interestingly, she expects that a majority of psycho-therapists are “narcissistically disturbed”, and considers it almost as a pre-condition for their profession. She also posits that arts, despite being seen as most “authentic” careers, are also attractive to the insecure over-achievers as they provide a wide audience that can serve to validate the false selves. To paraphrase and expand Miller’s point: if you are an insecure over-achiever there is no amount of career changes, gap-years, children or drugs (ayahuasca anybody?) that will bring your authentic “self” back – the only way to make your life a little better is to acknowledge that you have been toiling to satisfy your “fake self”, and attempt to recognise and neutralise patterns that make it painful for you (even if you stay in your all-encompassing job or decide to become a goat).