When the Pressure to Succeed Damages Your Mental Health

October 8, 2020 Jennifer Lear

Nobody is immune to the pressure to succeed. Whether it comes from family, teachers, bosses, or ourselves, the pressure to "achieve" is something we have all felt. It's not necessarily a bad thing: pressure (or your perception of it) can give you a competitive drive, the impetus to keep going when you feel like giving up, and it can result in great things, both professionally and personally. However, when that pressure to succeed becomes so intense that you lose sight of everything else, it's time to pump the brakes and reevaluate your priorities. Sure, success is great, but not when it comes at the expense of your mental health.

The Pressure to Succeed Can Start at a Young Age

The pressure to succeed was ingrained in me. I was a nerdy kid. I performed well academically and was expected to achieve great things. I studied at a prestigious college and graduated feeling that I had lived up to those expectations. Then reality hit — now I was alone in the world, I had no idea what I wanted to do.

Some would say it was a very privileged position to be in; but all I could think about was that I needed to do something "impressive" — something that would make my peers say, "Well, I always knew she would do something great," and make my family want to brag about me at dinner parties.

It became clear that I had spent the first 21 years of my life so focused on "achievement" that I'd forgotten to think about what it was I really wanted from life, and now I felt totally adrift, buoyed only by the thought that whatever I did, it had to be "impressive."

Losing Sight of What Matters in the Pursuit of Success

I ended up getting a job with a fancy-sounding title, and was thrilled when people would ask me on social media, "So, what are you up to these days?"

But the truth was that I was miserable. I was terrible at the job, I was treated poorly by the people there, and I was starting to doubt whether I was really qualified for anything other than being a student. I eventually quit (before they had a chance to fire me), and got an entry-level position somewhere else.

I was so ashamed — so ashamed and terrified of people's reactions that I started lying when anyone asked me what I did for a living. I invented a title for myself and inflated my responsibilities to make it sound like I was still riding high. In the end, the pressure to maintain the lie, coupled with my feelings of shame and self-loathing, led to a major dip in my mental health and a major spike in my symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

I had a breakdown and even became suicidal. I'm not saying that the pressure to succeed was solely responsible for this episode, but it was definitely a significant contributory factor. 

Your Health Is More Important than Your Job

And yet, "failing" turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. I finally had time to think about what I really wanted to do and be, and completely recalibrated my idea of what it meant to be a success.

I realized that no amount of praise from former teachers or number of "likes" on Facebook were worth sacrificing my health and my relationships with the people I really cared about. So, when I was stable again, I found myself a job working for a grass-roots charity in my hometown. It wasn't the kind of job that required a master's degree or straight As, but it gave me what I was looking for: a sense of pride in my work and satisfaction in the knowledge that I was helping people. I had never felt more accomplished.

So, to anyone reading who might be dealing with the pressure to succeed, feelings of inadequacy, or feeling trapped under the weight of other people's expectations, just know that your wellbeing is so much more important than your bank balance, your wardrobe, your car, or your job title. Allow yourself to pursue whatever makes you happy: only then will you know what it feels like to be a success. 

How has the pressure to succeed affected your mental health? Share your thoughts in the comments.

APA Reference
Lear, J. (2020, October 8). When the Pressure to Succeed Damages Your Mental Health, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Jennifer Lear

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