Over the last decade of having worked with several high achieving women struggling in relationships, both, personal & professional, I decided to interview 50 such women who were action-oriented problem solvers battling their emotions & its entanglements.
This article focuses on the findings from my (ongoing) qualitative (interview based) research on High Achieving Women in Relationships, & Struggling with Emotions. So far I’ve interviewed 40 women living across South Asia, Europe, Canada, & the United States, and you’ll see below what I found common across cultures.
The MAIN Cause Of Relationship & Emotional Struggle for High Achieving Women
Like most people in the world, high achieving women have the same 3 core needs of feeling safe, wanting love, & finding meaning (or purpose) in life, and like most people they're pretty clueless on how to have these met. The difference is, unlike most people, they try really hard to fix this with all their force. The fact that they try so hard for so long to change it, and yet constantly find themselves repeating patterns, adds to their suffering.
WHO IS A HIGH ACHIEVING WOMAN
As there is no universal definition of a High Achieving Woman (if you google its definition you get different people talking about high achieving women from their perspective), for the purpose of this article let’s begin with understanding who I’m referring to when I say “high achieving woman”:
She is a problem solver, is action-oriented, & believes she has the agency to change things in her life. She may or may not consider herself to be ambitious, but if you look at her life there are clear signs of inner-drive & the go-getter attitude.
She most likely has achievements to showcase from her school days & work place. Most people around her see her as “sorted”. She wants to live life on her own terms, she dreams to birth her creations in the world someday (if she hasn’t yet), she has enough cognitive awareness to see where she’s struggling, to see the patterns, & she’s trying to resolve them all.
WHY DO HIGH ACHIEVING WOMEN STRUGGLE, IN RELATIONSHIPS, & WITH EMOTIONS?
1. The Bane Of “Never Good Enough”
The reason she has achieved all that she has achieved till date is because she never settled for anything less than the “best”. She always worked hard, and was recognized for it. While this helped her in achieving things in school &/ at work, this attitude has a toll to pay when it comes to relationships, both personal & professional.
Not being able to build harmonious relationships at work, sooner or later, begins to come in the way of achievements at work too. You can look at a piece of work & say you want it re-done because it’s not “good enough”, but when you start doing it with people – and even yourself (which all of these women do, & many don’t realize how often they do it!) – it gets complicated!
2. The Fallacy Of Time
This is a story that most humans are bought into – there’s only “so much” time we have. So what?! So what if there’s only so much time? These women have grown up, & been rewarded, to be always racing against time. A race against time is doable for some time, but eventually, if you keep at it, it’s going to be a losing battle.
Many of the women I spoke to felt that they haven’t been able to accomplish/ do what they thought they should have done by this time in their life. Some spoke of it explicitly saying:
“I’m struggling with time – I keep feeling I’m not on time with various things in life…”
While others said things like:
“I feel frustrated.”, “Why hasn’t it happened yet?”, “When will I find someone?!”
3. The Frustration Of Others Not Meeting “Basic” Standards
This goes back to point one above, and adds more nuance to it – these women are easily irritated/ infuriated by those around them who don’t do “up to the mark” work.
This usually leads to two things – one, these women feel they’d rather do it all by themselves because others will do a subpar job. This leads to them feeling exhausted, burnt out, & often leaves them feeling under-appreciated.
Two, this refuels their beliefs of no one being good enough, & of them not being good enough if they can’t do something “basic”.
Of course, not to mention, their “basic” is usually never “basic” – remember, they look for nothing but the “best”!
4. The Dilemma Of Abandonment & Rejection V/S Coming Across As Needy
Most of these women have begun to see their underlying fears under it all – the fear of being rejected, of being “found out” (impostor syndrome), of being cast away, of being left all alone, of being abandoned. They have these fears, both at their work place, & in their relationships.
However, they’d rather face these fears with aggression than be seen as “needy”. Being seen as “needy”, “weak”, “emotional”, is one of their greatest fears, as they think this will make them “less”. As a result of not expressing their needs they find themselves feeling dissatisfied & unfulfilled.
5. The Risk Of Trusting
This ties well with the above point – If they were to share their fears, they’d be vulnerable. And they can’t afford to be vulnerable because what if the other takes advantage of their vulnerability? What if the other does a shoddy job? What if the other says a no? What if the other disappoints them? What if the other leaves them? What if the other stops loving them?
It’s a great risk to place their trust on someone else besides themselves. Thus, they shy away from asking for help, and feed their own need of being in control. The less interdependence they create with others, the more they feel unseen, unheard, & misunderstood.
6. The Other Side of Responsibility
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, these women own their actions, pick up their responsibilities, & fulfill them. The other side of that coin leads to them feeling a constant burden of all the “Should’s” and “Have To’s” and “Must’s”.
And Universe forbid, if they drop the ball somewhere, they then enter the hell realm of could-have/ should-have/ would-have – enter regret, guilt, & shame! The worst of it all is they almost never drop the ball, and still enter this realm courtesy point one – nothing is ever good enough for them – not others, not themselves!
Have you heard about the Hustle Scam? It’s a contributing factor to feeling like you’re never enough!
WHAT THEY WISH FOR
I was greatly moved by what they wanted – it seemed like they all wanted what all humans truly want (surprise, surprise!):
- They wanted to be seen, loved, cared for, feel important, worthy, free, wholesome, & fulfilled.
- They wanted to be able to truly love & accept themselves, accept others & accept whatever has happened/ is happening life.
- They wanted to be secure & rooted in themselves, be trusting, feel free to love without anxiety, have clarity in what to do, be in a good relationship with themselves, be liberated from the patterns they felt stuck in, & create sustainable action for continual growth.
All the above was clearly portrayed in their responses to the question: If you were to die tomorrow, how would you hope you were remembered, what kind of impact would you have hoped to have in people’s lives? They said:
“I was kind, lit up a room, & was brilliant – I made people feel seen, heard, & loved.”
“They felt safe with me, could share their feelings with me, be vulnerable with me.”
“People should say I lived my full life, & they would remember me as never shying away from speaking my heart.”
“She built a life around helping people, she dedicated herself to advocating for people – I would have helped people realize their own potential.”
I can go on quoting from all 40 – they all had the same core – wanting to create & enable love, safety, & meaning. I guess it makes sense – because all of this is exactly what they want for themselves.
WHAT THEY’VE TRIED SO FAR TO RESOLVE THESE STRUGGLES
Most of these women have tried self-help – they’ve read a number of different books, some follow certain experts on social media & consume their content. Many have tried therapy, some sporadically, others more consistently. Some have tried working with a coach, &/or tried out a few different workshops to build skills.
While most of them are able to see that they’re stuck, and most of the times are also aware of the patterns that they continually repeat, what they still struggle to resolve is getting out of these patterns, & changing the way they react.
For a handful of them, literally 5 out of the 40 I interviewed, these patterns had begun to shift. What was working for them? Engaging in changing narratives they were living, body-based work, & spiritual practices. Basically, engaging in deep inner-work that goes beyond the “rights” and “wrongs” of our cognitive mind.
What was also common to these 5 was their deeper understanding, at the experiential level, that this is a long journey. ‘Be in It for the Journey’ is the first point on how to cultivate confidence, mentioned in the Forbes article, What Most High-Achieving Women Need More Of And How To Cultivate It.
MY TWO CENTS
As I listened to these women share their pain points, their fears, their struggles, & their desires, 3 things came up for me:
1. The skills that helped them succeed at work were the very same skills pulling them down in relationships and manoeuvring emotions. For instance, in a work scenario their ability to see what’s missing in a solution enables them to create a better solution.
Imagine how this can play out at a personal level – if you keep looking for what’s missing in you, and others around you, all you’re left with is dissatisfaction, lack of joy, & a sense of worthlessness.
2. They were all trying – trying to change something that will bring them what they wanted – being seen & understood, feeling loved & safe, learning & growing. However, it was like they were putting all their strength in pushing open a locked door, only from the wrong side, & without the key!
3. They were all seeking to meet the 3 categories of core human needs: Safety-Security-Grounding | Love-Care-Belonging | Meaning-Contribution-Growth.
Like most people in the world, they were pretty clueless on how to have these met. The difference was, unlike most people, they were trying really hard to fix this. The fact that they had tried so hard for so long to change it, and yet constantly found themselves repeating patterns, was adding to their suffering.
The 6 core pain points of emotional & relational struggle for high achieving women:
- A sense of things not being “good enough” is their constant companion.
- They are always racing against time which creates deep frustration in them.
- They struggle with those who don’t meet their level of “basic” standards.
- They have needs but they don’t express them because they don’t want to appear “needy”.
- They only trust in their own abilities as they want to ensure their “standards”.
- Responsibility takes them into the realms of regret, guilt, & shame.
What they want: Exact same things as all humans – to meet their 3 core needs of safety, love, & meaning.
What seems to work: When they engage in deep inner-work that goes beyond cognitive knowing.
P.S. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article – this is an ongoing research – I’m keen on interviewing any woman who resonates with this article in order to continue deepening my understanding of the high achieving woman and her emotional struggles. If you’d be interested in sharing your experiences with me, please book an interview slot HERE.
P.P.S. Also, if you have any thoughts or questions, I would love to hear from you in the comments box below.