The High Cost of HyperCompetence

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Two months ago someone near and dear to me attempted suicide, a single working mom who cares for an ill parent on top of it all.  Thank goodness she survived without long-term physical damage.  But when I heard the awful news I thought, “There but for the grace of G-d go I. And more of my friends.  And many leaders in our community.

Even though we were in touch on a regular basis, I had no idea this friend was in so much pain. She has since then reflected a theme I’ve heard from so many people I know:  “You have no idea how much I’m doing, and I can’t handle it anymore.”  I’ve said these words myself.  Have you?

We leaders, especially modern women professionals, need a new way to be in the world.  Many of us are overdoing, beyond what’s healthy for us. We are too good, for our own good, at getting things done. We are hyper-competent.  We are hyper-productive.  We are hyper-accountable. We try to do it all, everything we expect of ourselves and most of what we imagine others expect from us.  We go over, beyond, and above.  Our lives exhaust us.  We try to escape the overload by numbing out — with food, alcohol, pills, media, etc.  But, as my friend Geoff Laughton says, “People’s control strategies aren’t working anymore.“ In other words, we are still in pain.  The stakes of hyper-responsibility and over-empowerment are dangerously high.

I feel a deep calling to open a dialogue about how we are coping, and how we are not. If the above description resonates with you personally, I hope you’ll keep reading.  If it doesn’t resonate with you personally, I hope the same; as you do, please consider who in your life and work may be in this dire of a situation.

I see right now that we professionals all have a choice:

A.   Keep trying to chase our vision of who we should be, with everything we think we should be doing, in the process working ourselves to the brink and perhaps over it -OR-

B.    Do only what’s absolutely most important to us, and trust that the rest will work out

For several decades I lived in accordance with the first option.  I tried to power through my pain.  My attitude was “Let’s keep going. Let’s get back to work and do what we’re supposed to be doing right now.”  So I know from that personal experience that Option A causes physical and emotional damage.  Although I’m not the active workaholic I once was, I occasionally still struggle with that demon.

I’m finally 100% committed to step up to take a stand for others in similar circumstances.  I refuse to stand by and watch people who I love and admire suffer in physical and emotional pain while they’re busily trying not to make mountains out of molehills.  Professional responsibilities and family responsibilities are mountains by their very nature.  Period.  We have to scale them carefully, because mountains, though beautiful, can be dangerous.

It’s time we talk about this more openly, even if we feel embarrassed by having such first-world problems.  I’m ready to lovingly, honestly call myself and other professionals on our self-destruction-in-the-name-of-service ways. The stakes of staying in pain are too damn high – death, physical injury, nervous breakdowns, and physically or emotionally abandoned dependents.

For the several months prior to my friend’s suicide attempt, I found myself in a new headspace.  I decided to stop prioritizing my future over my present.  I was valuing my own needs and living in accordance with my priorities, setting aside my persistent financial worries.  I was dressing up even if I had nowhere to go.  Getting my nails done just because it felt good.  Showing up for my kids even if it felt non-productive.  Taking naps even if it meant time away from work!  I actually felt better than I had in a long time.  I felt happier in my body and in my relationships.

Even so, a sneaky little voice that Freud would call my superego kept whispering to me that living this way was Irresponsible.  The week of that attempt, the very same week that so many others’ expressions of grief also entered my immediate world, I realized the necessary response to that small but powerful inner critic. Here it is: Prioritizing the present over the future is not Irresponsibility; it is the ultimate in Responsibility.  Prioritizing our near-term needs over our long-term wants makes it possible for us to build a future otherwise at risk of existing without us.  With my newfound clarity in mind, I’m finally wholeheartedly grateful for my commitment to taking care of my needs, values and priorities in the midst of an otherwise full life.  Will you join me?

Your life is no doubt equally full, with just as many challenges as I face if not more.  For many of us — modern women professionals who are by nature intellectual, creative, compassionate, tenacious achievers — something is out of whack.  Rather than feeling connected in with our sense of Universal expansion, we are keying into the opposite, more personal, energy of despair. Are you?

For another of my community members, the despair has been showing up in her body.  Her knee is breaking down, the same one on which she had surgery 2 years ago and then insisted on aggressively using before her healing process was complete.   When I recently spoke with her, she complained in one breath about her pain and in the next told me how she was about to leave her house to volunteer as a guide on a walking tour.  I did that thing I promised myself I’d do; I called out the incongruity of her knee pain with her plan to stand for the next several hours.  Thankfully she heard me.  Two days later she called to share that she was feeling despair.  That was her exact word.  I am sure she had been metaphorically running from her despair, and when she stayed home to take care of her knee, her true feelings arose.

We are strong leaders, busy putting everybody else first because we suspect they are more important than we are.  But deep down service may not be our primary motivation.  Are you overdoing in part because you don’t want to FEEL? Because those niggling feelings of sadness and anger terrify you? Serious question: who/what are you cutting off to protect yourself?

Another piece of wisdom from my friend Geoff Laughton:  “The healthy ego works for the heart; the shadow side works for and from the mind.” Rather than expect your mind to power your choices, perhaps it’s time to let your heart be the compass as you navigate through life. We have to learn to give of ourselves without depleting ourselves.  We have to accept that we are important too. It’s time to give from the saucer, not from the cup.  As a result we will have more energy to give in the future.

Am I the only one experiencing this phenomenon of dangerous hyper-competence in my orbit?  Is it also happening to you or around you?  What do you think it’s about?  What’s the power in the pain?  What’s the gift it’s trying to give you?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.  Let’s discuss where we are struggling and how we can shift to leading by giving of ourselves without depleting ourselves.  It’s time.


  1. Dr. Valerie Young

    Wonderful post Debra!

    I've been speaking and writing on something called the impostor syndrome (that, "I'm in over my head and they're going to find out" feeling common to many accomplished women — and men) for decades now.

    Overworking/preparing is one of the coping and protecting strategies Dr. Pauline Clance cites as a way to both manage the stress of waiting for the other shoe to drop and to avoid being "found out."

    The good news about overworking is it works… the harder we work the greater likelihood we will do a good job and be successful.

    The bad news is we pay a very high price for that protection — including the very dire consequences you cite here.

    We become so used to working hard to evade what Mike Meyers referred to as the No Talent Police, that we become afraid of what will happen if we shift to a slower gear. "Then they'll really find out I'm not as bright and capable as everyone THINKS I am!"

    Your article brilliantly sounds the alarm about these costs. I encourage you to submit it as an editorial to the WSJ and the NY and LA Times. Far too women submit editorials to major publications. The world — men included — need to hear your message.

    Dr. Valerie Young
    Author, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
    My recent post Is the Impostor Syndrome All Bad?

    • Debra Woog

      I’ve been an admirer of your work and Dr. Clance’s and I hoped my content would resonate with you like it did. Your work is much needed in the world! Thank you for contributing to the dialogue, and for spreading the word to your community!

  2. Debra Woog

    Geoff, thank you for helping me see that the world needs me to share this message. i too don't have it all wired. But it's a worthwhile work in progress for us both! And for those who love and work with us! In your case, those are probably the same people. 🙂

    No one's ever told me before that I have ovarian courage. I like it and I'll accept it!

    It's true that whistle blowing is risky. I've definitely received some backlash for this post. Fortunately I'm strong enough to handle it.

  3. Geoff Laughton

    Well, you can count on me to share this with my community…what you're sharing about here nearly took me out about 15 years ago. I don't profess to have it all wired, but I'm clear that my life, and everyone else's, depends on finding a balance that is driven from the inside out. I'm so proud of you for getting this out here in the public eye the way you have…takes a lot of ovarian courage (I want to say "a lot of balls," but that would be chauvinistic of me). It's risky to be a whistle-blower of any kind, and you remain consistently risk-taking!

    Oh…and thanks for quoting me a couple of times in the post 🙂

    Looking forward to your talk on Wednesday!
    My recent post Spiritual v Ego Relationship Talk 2015

  4. Lynn Smith

    I love what you said about overdoing so as not to feel. So many of us walk around numb. And we work to keep it that way. Busy is better than acknowledging what's going on inside. When we're busy, and constantly doing, we can pretend all is well. Overdoing becomes just like drugs or alcohol – a coping mechanism.

    • Debra Woog

      We do – we quite literally work to keep ourselves numb! I like to think of myself as a recovering overdoer. It's a lifelong healing process.

  5. Linda Lombardo

    Hi. While I'm not a high powered business woman… I am a single mom trying to raise a girl in a crazy world. Hoping to lead her down the right path and help her make good choices in life. Fighting a long and difficult custody battle with a man who was just out to break me. Doing this while trying to live a sober life with real recovery. I am dealing with life long issues along with chronic depression. This has been a struggle to say the least. I am trying to be as strong as possible for my daughter and more than once she has been the cheerleader for me. Imagine how that feels. Now comes the aging parents. Being the only girl, the guilt of responsibility falls right on my shoulders. It's very hard to carry so much wright. And while the weight may not be the same as others it is my weight to bear and it is crushing at times. Thoughts of suicide have creeper in. But to leave my beautiful daughter is not an option. Just not an option. So I fight the pain. I fight and I keep fighting. Some days I win. Some days I lose. But my bright and beautiful daughter shows me that I'm here for a reason…. I have to let go and tell people I need help. I can't do it all by myself. And reach out to people, it's not a weakness to do that….that's what I thought… no more. I find strength. Thanks for letting me share. Some of this may have been babble.

    • Debra Woog

      Linda – you are right in the "sweet spot" (it doesn't feel sweet, I know) to which I'm referring. I hear you. Keep fighting and keep asking for help. Your daughter, your parents, your siblings, and many others need you. And let's remember how much fun we had that time we went to Paint Night. The creative outlet plus the laughter was just what the doctor ordered. Let's do it again!

  6. Laurie Demit Rusin

    Great post Debra! It really speaks to me and so many others I know. What great insights you have. I look forward to the 6th. I hope your friend is recovering.

    • Debra Woog

      Thank you, Laurie! Yes, my friend is recovering well, and she's in full support of this dialogue. I look forward to hearing you on the 6th. Remember to register to get the call-in info!

  7. Stefanie Frank

    I can't say I identify very much with this.

    For years I've refused to overwork or put others' needs before my own. Not having kids makes that a lot easier (don't doubt that for a second) – but I also observed my mom not succumbing to the high cost of hyper-competence, so I think I had a great role model. She was always there for us and did put our needs before her own – when appropriate and necessary. She also had good boundaries, which, reading between the lines a bit, may be some of what's lacking when we take over responsibility or keep trying to chase our vision of who we "should" be.

    I suppose I may have been like this when I was a lawyer – and believed I didn't have a choice. I despised the constant high stress and resented having to use all my "down" time to recover from work. I was in a lot of pain then, in more ways than one. It was such a relief to quit that dreadmill/hamster wheel after 11.5 years.

    Now I feel like I'm able to follow my heart and allow my mind to sit in the passenger seat. It's not always easy and sometimes my mind still muscles in and takes over. But I keep at it, because there's no way I'd rather live.
    My recent post Do This When Editing

    • Debra Woog

      Stef – totally agree with you about the value of good boundaries, like your mom had. Hooray for you for following your heart as driver and allowing your mind to sit in the passenger seat!

    • Paula G

      I also have to say that for myself the more confidence, self-worth I continue to build, the better the boundaries become. So in the past where I may have allowed something, now I don't. So much of the "should" has gone patooey!

      You talk about it being different while practicing law… and it once again rings true that when we are not in the right place for u, have too much stress, resiliency is down, we can fall prey to this.

      Loving the conversation…..
      My recent post 53 Ways to Vitalize Your Business During a Summer Lull

      • Stefanie Frank

        Paula excellent point! Building confidence and self worth is such a dedicated, life long practice. Interestingly enough the boundaries I must most vigilently enforce these days is how I treat myself – which is a huge point of Debra's post. I have less and less tolerance for treating myself badly. Yippee!

        I believe I was in the right place in the legal profession for a long time – until it wasn't right. The last 4-5 years or so of that phase of my professional life was like a slow descent into hell . . . LOL. A tad dramatic but looking back, that's how it felt.
        My recent post Do This When Editing

  8. Melissa

    Thank you for starting this vital dialogue, Debra! I struggle and watch so many of my friends struggle with HyperCompetence, and I am grateful that you've called it out. Thank you for making a space for us to take a breath and start looking at strategies to shift our energy away from our crazy-making that benefits no one!

    • Debra Woog

      You're welcome. Yes, exactly, the crazy-making benefits no one!

  9. Jennifer

    Amazing, Debra. Every sentence is powerful. I kept wanting to share quotes on Facebook, but I ended up just wanting to quote the entire post!

    I SO agree with you, I can so relate, and I love the energy behind this. This is not about judgment, but is about taking a big, loud stand. I'm thrilled that you're starting this conversation, and I'm betting you've got some wisdom to share on how to shift the experience so many of us are having.

    I've felt this hyper-competence and seen it cost me in health and well-being, in my marriage and feelings of resentment and anger, in sadness over not spending enough time with my kids because there was just too much to do, and in continually putting off the creative work that feeds me. Every time I make moves to follow your lead and do what's most important to me right now, even when it's scary and seems irresponsible, I'm grateful, and happy, and things just seem to work out.

    I'm looking forward to the 6th, and can't wait to share this article with just about everyone I know!

    • Debra Woog

      Jen – please do share this with your community, and thank you for sharing here how you personally relate. As we can see from the comments already received, we are in good company!

  10. Cara

    Debra- I could write a book on all that you have brought up here. IF I were to start my own business, it would likely involve a heavy focus in this area. I cannot tell you how much I am in agreement with the idea that society has it backward. You use the wording "something is out of whack" and the irony of it all ties into the idea of valuing high achievement over regular achievement. Just because we have potential to achieve, doesn't mean it is the best idea overall. In fact, I have often thought that it is this potential and its temptations that will ultimately speed up the demise of our species and this planet. Sorry to be dramatic, but I am totally serious. Is it truly high achieving if you neglect yourself to the point of injury, illness, despair? Clearly valuing hyper-competence and outward successes (particularly economic) over being able to sit with and understand feelings (teaching our kids to do the same) and nurturing ourselves is causing a lot of damage and much of it happens silently or is muted by substance abuse… over-eating… and other behaviors we choose to use as indulgences or coping mechanisms. So we point our fingers at the substance, or the lack of will power or genetics. It is not popular to accept normal achievements as good enough. Nothing is ever good enough, even when it clearly is… because there is never a ceiling. Until we make the time to sit and feel miserable and put giant efforts into understanding the value of regular achievement how can we possible consider stopping this cycle? The stress will never stop, it will never EVER be enough. The only way to make it ok… to make it enough, is to convince society to be happy with the way things are. Well… Henry Ford didn't let that happen, Steve Jobs… and that gal with the fire and the wheel… well we needed them all right? We just couldn't say no and can't and shouldn't (even Ghandi didn't say no in all his material simplicity). But what we can say no to is ourselves. WE are the biggest culprits in this self-care avoidance in the name of progress. But boundaries must be set, per the individual situation or there will always be despair. At the knee and back specialist I saw this morning, I noticed that every single person I encountered seemed to be under tremendous pressure in their lives. Then I started realizing that everywhere I turned, the majority of people were showing outward signs of experiencing overwhelming stress and despair. THEN I read your blog, this theme has surrounded me all at once. I don't really have the time to write all that I would like here. Ironically I have to meet a few commitments to myself before bedtime. I have been engaging in an AMAZING program called The Whole Life Challenge. If anything is helping me do what you you describe, it is this. I decided to try it in May despite the fact that I most certainly had no time for it. But a friend of mine died two days before it started and I realized that it was SHE that didn't have the time. Initially I viewed it as a diet (my version of running a marathon)… but as the 8 weeks passed I realized that the areas of focus extend far beyond weight-loss into a realm where you begin learning about truly caring for yourself through learning to make better choices, fine tune personal limits and goals. Last week I started their first ever Advanced Challenge and am continuing my journey and evolution. Almost 100% of my health issues have subsided, debilitating issues that have plagued me for 3 years. And if I can do it, any one of you can. Its not about perfection, almost the opposite in a way. Its reflective nature gives an inspiring angle of learning to help yourself (within the safe structure of the 'game rules' it is easier to explore the things we try to run from) and all that I am doing is trickling down to my kids and husband. I wanted to share this experience here because it is the perfect way for an over-achiever to channel their manic efforts toward success … in the direction of taking care of themselves and learning to realize in time how to confidently prioritize their conscious decision to know when that whispering superego is lying to you. I will join you Debra. At the very least I will never stop looking around me and reaching out to let people know that we have it all backwards. The next WLC begins in September, if you want to check it out. It is team-based and maybe some of your friends will join you. I even considered doing it again just to remain part of the positive group setting and dialogue. Lots of love to you and to your friend who became so desperate. Unfortunately, my ability to relate to her gesture is quite high. I'm glad she has come through it well enough. I have a friend who wasn't quite so lucky in her outcome. I think of her often.

    • Debra Woog

      Oh Cara, thank you so much for sharing your stories here. If you ever do start a business relating to this topic, count me in! We are not being dramatic. These issues are real, they are deep, and they are relevant not only to us but to thousands of women like us. I'm glad you described The Whole Life Challenge. I look forward to checking it out! Let's keep the conversation going. Hope to hear you on the August 6 call!

  11. Joanna Lindenbaum

    This is such an important topic and such a powerful article! Over-working is a chronic condition in today's society, and you are so right on to be taking this vital stand for women to take care of themselves, their bodies, their spirit and their families…knowing that you don't have to sacrifice success to do so.

    I'm so glad you are hosting a conversation about this topic!

    • Debra Woog

      Joanna, you said it so beautifully. Thank you for seeing and hearing me.

  12. Mary

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Hyper-competence, and "I can't handle it anymore" and the chasing the vision of who I think I should be – Yes. I have been there. I am still there. I think as entrepreneurs, we all hit this place to some degree at some point in our lives.

    This is such an important conversation, if for no other reason than that it's empowering to know we are not alone in a struggle that might feel unique to us. It's the elephant in the room, and such a difficult conversation to have. We think being an entrepreneur means we should be able to 'do it all', and somehow admitting that we aren't capable of that impossible standard is somehow shameful. I agree that sometimes that struggle is actually our protective shield, protecting us from something closer to the heart that we just don't feel able to deal with.

    I have recently started on a path to being more present in the moment. I still struggle with worrying about tomorrow, as much as I know that worry is fruitless. The power in my worry is that I get to control what's important to worry about, and by putting something less threatening in that power position I alleviate my fear of facing the more ominous (and seeming less defeatable) worries. I have started asking myself the question, 'What would be so bad if I didn't (fill in the blank)?' I'm finding the answers to be a lot less scary than allowing them to haunt my peripheral vision.

    In this article, you really helped call out the personal demons looming just out of our sight, and that may be all we need to be able to put it front and center to contend with it, before it contends with us. Thank you for stepping up on this topic. Best wishes and much love to your friend.

    • Debra Woog

      Mary, your comments are so meaningful. This IS the elephant in the room for us capable, motivated women. I did not know that you've started down this path, and I'm happy to know so that I can support you! I love what you said about haunting the peripheral vision. We can all only do so much. I too will start asking your question "'What would be so bad if I didn't (fill in the blank)?'

    • Debra Woog

      Mary, it IS the elephant in the room! No longer will we pretend we don't see it. I'm glad to know you started down this new path recently; I am happy to support you on it. Let's keep talking about this.

  13. Jodi

    Exceptional post, Debra. We DO need to discuss it and I am glad you'll be having a chat about it.

    • Debra Woog

      Jodi, thank you for your positive feedback. Even though I'm on vacation today, I was on pins and needles this morning when this post was released into the ether. Your words are validating for me.

  14. Marcy Stahl

    Hi Debra – thanks for bringing up such a key topic! For me, I had a health crisis in 2005 after years of ignoring how I actually felt, mentally and physically.

    That was my big wake-up call to my inner dissatisfaction and the need to take care of it (and myself) IMMEDIATELY!

    I've got the call on 8/6 on my calendar – I'm looking forward to participating and hearing more!

    • Debra Woog

      Marcy, I'm so grateful you heard the message your health crisis had for you. There is no one more important to take care of than you! Thank you for extending the message to this community.

  15. Paula G

    Great article Debra. I certainly could relate to so much you say here. I think the most successful people that surround us can often be secretly saying "but I'm hurting so badly, I can't let anyone see, I have to keep going". I've been there and know so many others have as well. I even wrote a post of one of my own incarnations of the crazy idea of pushing too hard (because I was feeling "not enough" and having to complete what I set out to do)

    Sorry to hear about your friend but glad she is doing better. This is a worthy conversation to begin and get into the open.
    My recent post Mix It Up for Maximum Results [Business Flow Video]

    • Debra Woog

      Paula, thank you for responding and sharing your experience. I feel in my bones how important it is that we continue this dialogue, no matter what my inner voice (and at least one outer voice) tells me.

  16. Nina

    Wow, Debra. this is great stuff,powerful stuff. All about the oxygen masks. I hope your friend is doing better.
    Your soon-to-not-be neighbor Nina

    • Debra Woog

      Nina, I'm sad you're leaving the neighborhood! Your exit is a loss to our community. Thank you for taking the time to comment today. I hope we'll keep in touch.