I know that I cannot check-in on facebook, for the building I have just entered is a secret place, protected by security cameras, sets of locked doors, and strictly enforced registration procedures for guests like me. After helping myself to coffee, I set up my laptop and wait for the women to arrive. I am determined to remember each of their names and remain focused on the task at hand during the entire class.
They appear slowly, taking up different roles. Some immediately start to help set up the room, unfolding tables and unstacking chairs. Others fuss over a squeaky newborn, tucked into a mechanically swinging cradle. A few of the incoming women regard me with silent suspicion, a stance that is no doubt reasonably based on past personal experience. We are strangers.
According to the online urban dictionary, an overachiever is motivated by his or her ideals, abandoning those who hinder the pursuit of those ideals, while striving for a degree of near perfection. One explanatory phrase that accompanies this definition suggests that this particular kind of identity formation often leads to frustration: “The over-achiever would not get married until she found the perfect father for her future babies. She died alone in her early fifties.” This sentence further presumes that overachievers are exemplified by single women. Or at least by women who wouldn’t “settle.”
Adopting my relaxed professor stance, I begin. “Today I would like us to think about the politics of looking and being looked at. The visual domain is rife with power dynamics, within which we necessarily find our place and exist. We need to be looked at. Yet the look of the other can also be limiting or disempowering, especially when it transforms us from subjects into objects. Here is a picture of me on stage during a bodybuilding/figure competition last year. What do you think? Am I a subject or an object here? What is going on?”
Compulsive overachieving is motivated by a drive for status in order to overcome psychological wounds. The overachiever desires more than is needed.
“We have so much in common,” I note smilingly, settling into the comfortable leather sofa in my living room, also furnished with a sleek Italian coffee table, hand-woven Iranian rug, and expertly hung original art works. “From the shit of our childhoods, we have risen triumphantly, better and stronger.” She agrees, arguing, “I think that we both became overachievers at a young age. Being good all of the time, doing everything right, made us simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. Our superior performance made someone else a more likely target of the irrational anger. Using this strategy of deflection, we found opportunities for escape.”
Wikipedia takes a more economic approach to classifying overachievers, noting that they: “increasingly take on new projects and drive themselves to perfection. For them, completing tasks above and beyond expectations provides the same physical and mental high as a drug. However, managers need to deal with the negative side of the overachiever personality: setting unrealistic expectations, working insane hours, taking risks to succeed at any cost, which can lead to sleep deprivation and burn out.”
The class is no longer under my control. I try to breathe slowly and listen, two things that I am not usually good at. “Well, she confesses, “when we first met I was a mess. I hated my job, I was unhappy, and I had a kid with no dad. He helped me continually. I was always asking him for advice, about every little thing. But when I eventually started to like myself more, and rely on him less, he was hurt. He said ‘You’ve changed,’ and then he left me for a woman who was unemployed, lost, miserable, and eager for assistance. His vision of himself as a stable, reasonable, strong, and generous man was formed in relation to my weakness, on which he was paradoxically dependent. The revelation of this dependence made him very angry.”
I wonder if I have adopted something like this masculine position. I am always trying to help, to provide, regularly delivering food and other goods to friends and acquaintances. I even extend gifts to people I barely know. [Aside: My snap-top tupperware containers and storage tins are scattered throughout Edmonton. Who in the hell currently has the fancy Italian cake plate that I bought in Chicago for $100?] Some people resist this particular power dynamic more than others. MW thwarts me at every turn, seeing right through me even as he loves me. My LSP is the most recalcitrant, calling me out on this strategy while reaping its benefits. He is my equal, not my co-dependent. That is why I respect him.
“The successful manager should understand that overachievers are competitive and action oriented. They blaze trails, work hard, conquer projects and then check out. Organizations need to be able to manage these kinds of individuals to take advantage of the passion, knowledge, and perspective they bring to an organization. At the same time, they tend to refuse help and undermine leadership. Teaching an overachiever humility takes practice but it is necessary.”
A young Aboriginal woman leans in and stares at me steadily. I return her gaze, ready for a challenge. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful,” she says, glancing at another volunteer, “but you two seem like middle-class white ladies. You look similar to me. I wonder why you agree on so much? Why do you use the term partner when you refer to your husbands?”
The other professor explains that while she is legally married, she rejects the value-laden construction of this institution, as well as its history of oppression. She admits to being “a pretty crappy wife.” I pipe up, saying that I am not married to my partner of 25 years for similar reasons, additionally loathing the consumer frenzy of weddings and refusing to own such socially-constructed symbols of—and replacements for—love as diamonds. “No governmental, religious, or social authority is going to tell me what my intimate relationships should or should not be,” I assert.
Without skipping a beat, the woman replies: “You are rich and white, able to reject that which you could easily have. Whereas people like me, like us, would love to have that husband and family, the big house and car. All of the things that confine you are not even within my grasp.”
I am struck by a thunderbolt of understanding. My ideals are informed by privilege, by my ability to say yes and no at the same time. Should I tell her that I was not always middle class, that I too have lived in fear, have seen women and children being beaten up? I open my mouth, but then stop. She doesn’t need another hero. Instead, I will try to act against type, and remember the valuable lesson that this insightful woman has taught me.