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The worst hangover of your life may have nothing to do with alcohol. Executive coach Melody Wilding calls it the “honour roll hangover.” It’s the result of an addiction that strikes high achievers who are attuned to their emotions as they strive endlessly for success and acclaim from others.

“This kind of hangover results in the same anxiety, fatigue and emptiness you might feel after a night of drinking too much, but it comes when the beliefs and actions that once helped you excel in the classroom start to hold you back and cost you your inner peace,” she writes in her book Trust Yourself.

Those thoughts and beliefs include a fixation on goal setting: You feel lost without targets. Deep inside, you’re not sure you know as much or are as capable as some of your colleagues and you worry that you’re an imposter in your job. You keep pushing yourself to work harder. You crave gold stars and beat yourself up when you make a mistake.

The key to conquering this hangover, she says, is to decouple your self-worth from your achievements. You need to seek meaning from work by being productive and invested in what you are doing, but not controlled by it.

You need to get a grip on three elements of your life - perfectionism, people-pleasing and overfunctioning.

Perfectionism is leading you to overemphasize your weaknesses and underestimate your strengths. “You believe you must appear shiny and impeccable on the outside so that no one sees how you’re struggling within,” she observes. You’ve gone beyond being pleasant to work with to putting others first, all the time. And while it’s great people can rely on you, you have become an overfunctioner, worrying that if you don’t do something nobody else will.

One strategy she recommends is to rethink goals and priorities – or even let them go altogether. “If you want a promotion because you are excited to grow, great. But if you’re working your way up that ladder just because you’re driven by a sense of competition or obligation, check yourself,” she says. In particular, relinquish goals that bring you more distress than benefit. Work on the need to compare yourself to others. Let go of your fear of missing out on opportunities.

Her five-day detox from this hangover calls for you to record when it occurs and reflect on what caused you to be distressed. Then pick one task or commitment you can delete from your to-do list without much fear of suffering consequences, and delegate it, or scale back your effort. Continue that approach with riskier tasks and commitments.

Mental toughness coach LaRae Quy notes that the need to appear perfect can be a tremendous burden. Strive instead for excellence rather than perfection. You will still have high standards and be a person of integrity. In some cases aiming for perfection may limit your ability to be imaginative and innovative because you have strict procedures to follow. Consider sacrificing perfection for imagination and innovation.

Ms. Quy is an overachiever and differentiates it from perfectionism. “For folks like me, good is never good enough. We beat ourselves up when things are not perfect -- not because we’re perfectionists, but because we always want to be the best and get first prize.” she writes on the SmartBrief blog.

She suggests recognizing when you’re “turning it on” to get attention or to be the best. Reduce your insatiable need to compete in everything you do. One tactic is to find an area where you can be of service as part of a team without being the head of the team. It might be the cure for your hangover.

Quick hits

  • Could arrogance be the reason your calendar is out of control? Executive coach Dan Rockwell points out that running around like a chicken with its head cut off can be seductive for people who like to feel important. You could also be underestimating how long projects take because you over-estimate your ability. Have the humility to accept reality about your capacity and abilities.
  • Professional salespeople tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, insists sales coach Steve Keating. Lies and half-truths will be exposed eventually.
  • A presentation isn’t a recital of information but a moment of connecting with others, says public speaking coach Gary Genard.
  • Eliminate that dreary command, “next slide please,” from talks where a group is presenting together or in tandem. It’s an annoying and avoidable command. Presentations coach Dave Paradi advises that you can share keyboard and mouse control with other presenters in Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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