December 19, 2017

How to Be a Recovering Overachiever

This week, we continue our series with Amy Paulson. In this week's post, she shares about her journey as a bulimic resulting from an overwhelming need to achieve and then achieve some more and how she healed from this.


A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a wise woman who used the term recovering overachiever to describe the ideal qualities of people that her organization likes to hire. A jolt of energy ran through my body as I heard those words. Yes! That’s me!

Many people like me who suffer from abandonment wounds or other kinds of childhood trauma can link their obsessive perfectionism to that childhood pain of guilt and shame from feeling unworthy and unlovable.  

My mom tells me stories of being a worrier, even at 3 years old.  She’d give me a crayon and paper and show me how to write a-m-y.  I’d stand there next to the end table in the living room, crayon in hand, for over an hour - worried about making those a-m-y letters perfect.  Uh-oh, she thought, this one is going to be a real worry wart. Yes. I was.

Not surprisingly, as a dancer for nearly 20 years, my obsession with perfection led to bulimia. Sadly, there is indeed a high correlation between obsessive perfectionism and eating disorders. And, I sure as hell wasn’t going to fail at bulimia - I was obsessed with doing even that perfectly.  

The rituals - washing the hands, carefully placing my towel on the floor, then a large tupperware bowl on top, perfecting what foods I could vomit easily, hiding the tupperware in my closet so no one would know, then sneaking into the bathroom to flush it down the toilet after everyone was asleep - all of that I did with a level of perfection that made me feel proud and very much in control, while my emotions and the world around me spun out of control.  

Until one day, after I shoved my finger down my throat, I looked down at my hand and it was covered in blood. How could this have happened? I had calculated everything so precisely. I thought I was the perfect bulimic. And, the validation from my dance instructors made it all worth it. They complimented me on rapid my weight loss - all that extra jogging I was doing on top of hours of dance practice very day (oh, and the secret vomiting) must be the winning formula to my slimmer dancer body. Yay for me!

Looking at the blood and saliva running down my hand, I felt both panic and utter failure. I didn’t realize then that that moment was the first step towards my recovery.  

It would take well over a decade to stop the bulimia altogether, through a combination of medication, individual therapy, and group therapy - and another decade to continue treatment for the depression that goes hand in hand with eating disorders.

But alongside that, I started learning how to embrace the imperfection that is life. Changing my job from one that encourages obsessive perfectionism (as a CPA) to one where I must surrender to chaos (in a nonprofit that works in global trauma recovery) has forced me to let go of over controlling everything and everyone, and to start looking at failure as an opportunity for learning and growth.  

And… I’m still in overachiever recovery.  Here’s what that looks like for me:

Self-compassion above all

I took Stanford’s 8-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) and it changed my life.  Learning self-compassion was like learning a new language - it was hard, required baby steps, and opened up doors to connection. I still have to work at it every day (some days are harder than others). But, I can now soften towards myself - and not just towards my wounded child self - but also towards the adult version of myself who I’m good at judging harshly. She also gets to be human, make mistakes, and in doing so, connects more deeply to her own humanity and that of others around her.  

Compassion for others

Any judgement or resentment that I may feel towards others is often just a reflection of my own insecurity and need to be perfect in order to be loved. Ever heard that quote: When you point the finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at yourself…? I hate to admit it, but it’s true. CCT and lovingkindness meditations helped me see those around me in a whole new way - as complex humans who inherited trauma, just like me, and who have their own coping mechanisms, just like me.  

Notice when I’m fixating

Even if I embrace the chaos, I still find other ways of trying to exert control. Sometimes, it can feel liberating or even helpful - like stopping in the middle of my workday to clean the inside of the microwave or taking a 5-minute brain break to meticulously color mandalas in my adult coloring book.  

Other times, it can be counterproductive - like throwing a tantrum at 11pm because someone left a dirty dish in the sink (No wire hangers!), or realizing that I’ve changed the color of a particular cell in Excel 6 different times because I can’t find the perfect shade of green - meanwhile I had a deadline to get that spreadsheet to someone yesterday.

When I try to stay present and notice what’s going on, I can see it and name it: Oh, I’m fixating. This must be about something else. What’s the worst thing that will happen if I let this go and move on?

Practice imperfection with intention

When I started grad school, I reverted back to my 3-year old self trying to write my name perfectly. I spent so many extra hours on assignments, where that extra time had no benefit to my actual learning process. I got a 99.25 out of 100 in my first class and found myself writing an email to my professor to argue for that last 0.75. Luckily, I called myself out (and by I, I mean my husband) before I sent that email.

I’ve now started to intentionally just do what’s necessary to get by. No, not with everything. But with the many things where it doesn’t fucking matter. Like letting the kitchen be messy when I know people are coming over, throwing away those papers that I will never file and don’t need anyway, and leaving those spreadsheets an unsightly black and white when they don’t need color coding!

These may be small things but they are symbolic. They’ve helped me to surrender and built that muscle that helps me cope (most of the time) when the bigger, more important life things happen.

Remember that recovery is a lifelong process
If recovery were school, I’d try so hard to get an A. But it’s not. It’s messy and imperfect (sigh). Oftentimes, my overperfection hurts people, and I need to own up to it, apologize, and practice compassion for myself and others. Mostly, it hurts myself. And, if I can stay in the process, notice, acknowledge, and not fall into shame, then I can build new neural pathways to heal those old wounds.

Luckily, I have a dozen chances to do that every day.  


Amy Paulson is the co-founder of Global Gratitude Alliance, a nonprofit organization working to heal individual and collective trauma through innovative training, mentoring, and leadership programs around the world.

Once an orphan herself, Amy is passionate about healing and transformation for children who have lost their mothers and for those who most need to reclaim their inner mother.  She's served in the nonprofit sector as a volunteer, international program manager, finance manager, and board member focusing on projects benefiting orphans and vulnerable children in the U.S. and abroad.  

Based in San Francisco, Amy is also working on her first book, The Wound Myth (working title) - a story about her journey through trauma, growing up as an adoptee in a biracial family, reuniting with her birth parents, and learning to embrace her trauma as a powerful catalyst for change.

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