We often think of the modern age as defined by such things as money, power, and material gain. Many feel that America has become focused on consumerism, big business, and making money, above all else. After many years of being welcomed by hundreds of people who have shared intimate details of lives when I was their counselor, therapist and clinical coach, I have come, however, to a different conclusion. I believe we live in a world where the currency, the driving force, is achievement, above all else!
It’s easy to believe that most of us are driven by money, power, fortune, and fame. We revel in the idea of having a big money lifestyle! Yet in all of my years of treating clients, not one person comes to mind who was motivated by money for the sake of money, in and of itself! If that were the case, does it not stand to reason that we’d have a lot more wealthy people in the world than the 1% suggests? On the other hand, every client, with no exception, exhibits signs and symptoms of feeling an intense pressure to achieve. In fact, from 14 year-olds to those 65 and up, all my patients have had massive expectations based on our cultural standards of achievement that they’ve adopted as their own. These expectations have become the measuring stick they use to determine their self worth. These expectations have become so intertwined with symptoms of mental illness that it begs the question, what is the role of the achievement culture in mental health?
Expectations are a funny thing. Most of us have little to no awareness of just how often our own expectations are the catalyst for the emotional challenges that we experience. In Mo Gawdat’s book, Solve for Happy, he argues that happiness can be measured using a simple algorithm. In this 2017 publication, the former Google executive and engineer shares his solution for learning to overcome the despair he experienced following the loss of his teenage son Ali. Only 17 days after his sons passing, Gawdat sat to write what would eventually become Solve for Happy. In his book he writes, “Happiness is equal to or greater than the events of your life minus your expectations of how life should be.” The central idea is that when our expectations of what our lives are supposed to be do not match what we experience, we feel pain and suffering. The greater the discrepancy, the more crippling the emotion. This is a phenomenon that is easy to spot in all of the clients I have worked with over the years, regardless of the details of their circumstances. Having worked with clients of means and privilege, and those who came from nothing, the common denominator is undoubtedly the expectations placed on themselves based on their idea of what their lives should look like.
The population that stands out in particular are the sons of wealthy families. Often their expectations of their own success, their measuring against their father’s (in most cases) achievements, and the pressure they experience from growing up in a system that stresses such a high level of success from very early on, creates a hopelessly low sense of self worth. Self esteem so low, we see crippling anxiety and depression, in addition to other extreme symptoms of mental illness. That is not to say, however, that the pressure to achieve does not exist in every corner of western culture. There is absolutely no doubt that the message to achieve has been adopted universally, under all socioeconomic conditions. We see the effects of one’s expectations of themselves, the pressure that they feel, the constant comparing to their peer set, and ruminations about whether they will or won’t achieve at the levels they expect, have truly become inseparable from depression and anxiety – the two most prevalent symptoms of mental illness found across most psychiatric diagnoses. It has simply become impossible to exclude these side effects of our achievement culture from mental illness, making it difficult not to speculate about the role of self esteem in mental health.
If you look closely you will easily see these achievement expectations written into every aspect of our system, into every part of our lives, into the very fabric of our culture. From the time of our birth we are taught what has now become a cultural myth – a widely held belief that is false and detrimental to us; the myth that our value, what we are worth, comes down to how we measure up against others.
We see this myth of achievement reinforced by family, friends, schools, government, pop culture, the media, and everything in between. We have systematically been taught that life is a series of hoops that you jump through to arrive at some time later when you have achieved everything you’re supposed to achieve, and eventually then arrive at happy. You go to kindergarten to prepare for first grade, which prepares you for second..third…fourth…fifth, which prepares you for middle school, which is designed to prepare you to get into a “good” high school, so that you can go to a “good” college, to get a “good” job, to have a “good” career, so you can have nice things, get married, have kids, and then eventually… retire? Most of us use this success ladder as a way to measure our self worth… as though everything is “OK”, as long as I am on the projected path in accordance with the timeline I have deemed sufficient, i.e., where I am supposed to be in accordance with what the ladder of achievement says the “right thing” is at this time in my life. How well the circumstances of our lives measures up against the objective ladder of achievement, then gives us our sense of our intrinsic worth. The truth is most of us can see that there is a ridiculousness to this system, and may even eventually learn that trying to chase some objective idea of success doesn’t work, not unless it just so happens that that objective idea is aligned with what our own would be for us anyway. The problem is by the time we are aware of the existence of this social pressure, of this achievement ladder, we have already been shaped and molded by it. We’ve already adopted these expectations as our own and cannot escape its emotional impact, by then having already measured our self esteem by this standard.
When a baby is born there is nearly always someone standing over them eager to lovingly force their expectations onto them. All of our hopes and dreams for the child’s life! Of course those that we love, we want to see achieve in extraordinary ways, we think that this is what will bring them happiness, and fulfillment. However, in so doing, we unintentionally send the message that their success is equal to their self worth – we superimpose a pressure that we feel to achieve onto those that we love the most. Be it a parent, grandparent, babysitter, etc., our children are sent the constant messaging that their value is connected to how they measure up against others. Whether it’s motivated by a parents inability to embody their own dream, needing to live vicariously through their child, a need to keep up with the Jones’s, a desperate fear of what happens if the child can’t or doesn’t succeed on their own, or anything else, the message we send to children long before they can walk or talk is clear – achieving, being good at something, standing out from the crowd as exceptional, being the cutest, smartest, funniest, fastest, etc., is very important to us…in some cases desperately important. In turn it is a child’s innate need for attention, love, validation and approval, that then drives them to bend to our will. Loud and clear they get the message that if they excel at the things we value, they will get our attention, approval, and love. Much like wearing an expensive handbag, designer clothing, or displaying our achievements on the wall, people use their children to feel good about themselves, to gloat about their achievements. They see them as a direct reflection of them. The problem is they simply do not realize that in doing so they are teaching their children to have a contingency self worth; a self esteem contingent upon achievement.
Having worked in mental health for many years you see the same habits of thought shared by most. No matter how unique we are, we are as much the same as we are different. At their core anxiety and depression are simply recurring patterns of negative thoughts, and emotions that over time become automated loops. Negative thoughts that play like a song you just can’t get out of your head, day in and day out. A non stop inner dialogue of criticism, anger, loneliness, fear, judgement, and self doubt. These maladaptive patterns ultimately stem from a deep fear…a fear that we can’t have or won’t get what we want. At its deepest roots, anxiety and depression stem from a not good enough syndrome. A direct byproduct of believing that your self worth has something to do with how you measure up against others. An idea laid in foundation almost immediately at birth, and reinforced every day thereafter.
So where does this come from? Why is it that we are so obsessed with achievement? The truth is our obsession comes from an ignorance in a different area of our lives all together…how to be happy. In Gawdat’s equation he explains that it’s happiness we feel when our experience matches or surpasses our expectations. We are happy when we get an A on an exam we thought we bombed, when we make more money than we thought we ever would, when the woman of our dreams says “Yes”! The problem is however, we have mistakenly confused desire, getting what we want, for happiness! Prolonged happiness, the kind we call fulfillment in life, comes not from manipulating our circumstances, but from manipulating our experience of them! Relying on our external world to always meet our expectations in order to be happy, sets us up to feel perpetually victimized by our lives…to live a type of contingency happiness. The “if, then” mentality”. If I lose ten pounds, then I will be happy. If he says he loves me, then I will be happy. When I have the money, house, cars, clothes, then I will be happy”. Yet it doesn’t take much for us to see this theory is riddled with flaws and that our first hand experience defies this idea routinely. If that were true then I could have retired after getting my first middle school boyfriend to check the yes box when I passed him the note that said, “will you go out with me? Check YES, or NO”. Asking a human being to experience satisfaction and happiness from getting what we want is like believing that this “one last cookie” will satisfy your 4 year old’s thirst for sugar for the rest of her life. Whether it’s getting the girl, buying the house, losing the weight, getting the job, graduating, having the money.. car… family, (fill in your desire here), nothing in this world has the power to bring us the happiness we desire but us.
In twelve step literature, where the role of expectations are routinely discussed, there is a quote that I love and that sums this up so perfectly. When I worked in adolescent treatment, each client had to memorize it in order to graduate from the 90 day residential program.
“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of my life – unacceptable to me. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.”
Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book), 4th Edition, P. 417