When Success Brings You Loneliness
Once you’ve done everything you set out to do, what happens next?
My dad likes to tell people that, if given the choice between reading a book or running a mile, I, his eldest daughter, would choose to do both.
He’s not wrong. To a fault, I’ve always been an obsessive overachiever. As a young kid, I scribbled out a list labeled “goals in life” on a scrap of notebook paper. I used to crush elementary school fundraising challenges; as an adult, I kept working from my hospital bed while in labor with my fourth baby, intent on hitting the earnings target I’d set for myself for the year.
I say this not to brag, but to talk about a peculiar thing that happened recently; that is, after years of being propelled by a singular focus on my own goals, I accomplished everything I’d been trying to accomplish and I realized I was miserable.
I’d spent years working toward my major goals: publishing a book, running a half-marathon, buying a house. But with all those behind me, I found myself adrift in a strange sort of aimless malaise. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
As it turns out, what I experienced is pretty common among overachievers. Melody Wilding, a performance coach and professor of human behavior at Hunter College in New York City, says she sees this phenomenon so frequently in her clients — so often, in fact, that she has a name for it: the “honor roll hangover.”
The honor roll hangover, Wilding explains, occurs among people with high-achieving personalities who work tirelessly to achieve their goals, but then go on to experience emptiness on the other side of reaching them. Picture someone who believes that climbing a mountain will lead them to a spectacular view at the top — only to get there and realize it’s just a bunch of rocks and now they are very, very tired.
“There’s disillusionment, there’s self-questioning, like ‘What did I do wrong? I did everything I was supposed to, but I’m still not happy,’” Wilding says. Along with disappointment, hopelessness, and even anger, she’s found that people going through the hangover are just plain exhausted when they finally hit their edge.