Insecure overachievers

Insecure overachievers

Do you often find yourself striving for perfection? Taking on more challenging projects? Working longer hours? All in pursuit of achievement or approval? Veronica Azua, Organisational Psychologist and Coach, takes us back to our childhood to explore some of the driving forces that could lie behind these traits and behaviours.


In my research and practice in leadership development and coaching, I have always been struck by the strong drive and high conscientiousness traits, the high self-discipline and achievement striving which is characteristic of ‘insecure overachievers’. Could love be behind this voracious driving force?

Successful leaders, insecure overachievers: an unsurprising truth
The psychology behind ‘insecure overachievers’ has received a lot of attention recently. The thorough and insightful work carried out by Prof Empson has been featured in the Financial Times by Andrew Hill and on BBC R4 (by Jonathan Brunert). I am not at all surprised by the popularity of the topic. Neither am I surprised by how many senior leaders are affected by the ‘insecure overachievers’ phenomenon. For more than a decade working in leadership development and coaching the one crucial pattern I have noticed, that recurs and pervades time and again, has been self-doubts, a strong sense of self-criticism and the high self-demands these leaders put on themselves. This pattern has been so dominant that it led me to research it academically. Needless to say that self-doubts and self-criticism are not alien to me personally.
Let’s blame it on the parents
Recent articles on the topic link the psychology behind ‘insecure overachievers’ with their early childhood, which I couldn’t agree more with! Particularly as my earlier career background was in psychotherapy, growing up in a part of the world dominated by psychoanalysis. Heavily influenced by psychoanalytical thinking I couldn’t help but look at the ‘insecure overachievers’ phenomenon with psychoanalytical/psychotherapeutic lenses.

‘Insecure overachievers’ are driven by their own insecurities. So, what is the psychology behind those insecurities? Well, psychoanalysis and other schools of psychotherapy may argue that behind self-doubts and self-criticism there is a part of the organisational psyche called ‘inner critic’. The inner critic develops in the earlier years and emerges, partly as a result of the quality of relationships between the parents, main caregivers, teachers and the child. The quality of the inner critic voices might depend on the way the parents responded to the child’s needs. When the child lacks sufficient warmth, attention or sensitivity from the parents, he or she may grow up feeling unlovable or unloved. Later on in adulthood they may seek the attention, approval and love that they felt they lacked in the earlier years. With this in mind, I couldn’t help but wonder whether this ‘insecure overachievers’ are driven by the strong and relentless force of seeking the love, approval and attention that they lacked or perceived they were lacking when growing up.

The self-doubts, self-criticism and the unconscious search for approval, attention and love that we felt we were lacking in the early years (if unresolved) seem to never stop. It may go dormant at times but it is always ready to drive us to do more; more workload, longer hours, to perfect that report just a bit more, to take on that extra challenging project or to  get very powerful and well remunerated jobs to get noticed. The recurring and relentless quality of this dynamic led me to think of a phrase that some attribute to Freud; ‘we are bound to repeat, what we don’t understand about ourselves’.

As we know from psychoanalysis the unconscious mind can play tricks on us, if there are certain unresolved and repressed aspects of ourselves they will inevitably leak in one way or another in our day to day life.

Some recommendations
I would invite ‘insecure overachievers’ to have a deep and kind look inside themselves and carefully examine what is really driving them. The ability to kindly examine and truly understand ourselves will eventually dissolve the unhelpful intensity of the inner critic voices and will ultimately initiate change.

Veronica is an organisational psychologist who has been working globally in leadership development and coaching for the past decade working in professional services firms (Deloitte and KPMG) as well as in industry.
She has been designing and delivering leadership programmes and offering coaching to Directors and Partners at KPMG for the past 4 years. Veronica has been working in leadership development for the London Business School facilitating group and 1-2-1 sessions as part of MBAs and EMBAs programmes for the past decade. Her passion for psychology and research have led Veronica to studying a professional doctorate researching the impact of self-doubts on leaders at a point of transition, which she is currently carrying out. Her early career background have been initially in psychoanalytical psychotherapy in Argentina where she was born and raised.