While some high achievers are simply doing what they’re passionate about, others are driven by trauma and are trying to address specific unmet needs. And sometimes, in these cases, high achievement is the addiction.
So what is the connection between high achievement and addiction, and are high achievers more prone to have an addiction?
The answer is both yes and no, depending on the motivation behind the pursuit of achievement.
Let’s take a closer look.
The connection between high achievers and addiction
Let’s start by looking at the two different types of high achievers in the world. There are those who strive for a goal because of a deeper sense of purpose which is what drives their passion. What is important for these people is that achievement itself isn’t the primary driver.
What drives them is the experience itself of doing the activity and its meaningfulness for the individual.
The end result, therefore, may be a high achievement but this is simply a byproduct of the person’s purpose-filled engagement in the activity.
People often describe this as being something bigger than them; something that fills their hearts and souls on a larger level.
High achievers who are driven by healthy motivation are also driven by this in general, so can often find meaning in other areas of their life too. This can be in terms of fulfilling relationships with family and friends, hobbies that they love, philanthropy or being a part of a strong community.
In this case, the achievement isn’t being driven by trauma or to fill a need that wasn’t met early on in life.
It’s also important to mention that the brain of these types of high achievers is structured differently than of those with an addiction.
Mental health and filling the void
On the other hand, you have high achievers, such as athletes and successful businessmen and women, who are addicted to the achievement itself as a source of self-worth and sometimes are also addicted to other substances.
The pressure of constantly being the best and trying to fill a void of self-worth (usually due to trauma and a lack of healing) can leave people feeling empty when they don’t achieve. And even if they achieve great things, they go home and still feel empty because this doesn’t heal their wounds.
If a person doesn’t gain pleasure in their life through activities that fulfil them, he or she might seek to get that pleasure in another way, like through a substance.
The seeking of pleasure plays a huge role in addiction. The seeking is one of dopamine (the pleasure and reward chemical) -rich substances such as opioids. The other huge part of addiction is the desire for temporary relief from emotional pain.
Using substances in an addictive way, therefore, gives a false sense of solution to a more deep-rooted emotional problem, as well as a temporary relief from the everyday stress that comes with high achievement.
Another existing connection is the one between high achievement and mental health. Due to constant stress, anxiety is more likely to occur among high achievers. But it’s not only the stress that leads high achievers to become addicted.
It’s also the neglect of one’s personal and emotional needs in the pursuit of goals and success in order to validate one’s self-worth.
In other words, high achievement is either fueled by strong passion and sense of purpose or addiction to dopamine based in trauma where the person is looking to fill an emotional void.
The brain in high achievers and people with addiction
Both early trauma and neglect of basic needs in childhood affect a person’s behaviour in adulthood which in turn affects the brain.
When you experience trauma (severe or mild) as a child, parts of your brain get altered, including the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. These are responsible for things such as your emotions, stress response and motivation.
A lot of this has to do with the stress from your immediate environment. Your brain chemistry becomes structured in a way that makes you more prone to addictions. It is also these changes that can make you a high achiever with a need to succeed.
The word here is “need”. Another thing that happens is that you develop more sensitivity to external stressors and heightened stress response.
There is interesting science behind high achievement and the brain. Studies have shown that there is a difference in the area where dopamine is stored in high achievers and non-high achievers.
Depending on which part of your brain dopamine is stored in, it affects your personality and if you become a high achiever or not.
This, however, can be changed with neuroplasticity (the brains capacity to change due to the environment) and even low achievers can become high achievers.
Healthy and unhealthy brain development
The main roots of addiction are a lack of healthy brain development and alterations in the neural circuit due to early stress or trauma and unfulfilled emotional needs from childhood.
The brain starts to develop early on, while still in utero and your environment inside your mother’s womb is impacting you already at this time.
If your mother experienced a lot of stress (physical and emotional) or trauma during pregnancy then that affects the brain development of the infant negatively.
As you are born, more stressors in the environment, such as your main caregivers’ emotional distress continue affecting your development.
People who have an addiction have a brain that functions slightly differently. That’s why addiction is described as a neurological and psychological disease. By understanding that your brain plays a big role in addiction, it can help let go of the shame.
However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t heal your addiction or that your brain can’t change again (neuroplasticity).
The “addiction genes”, stress and epigenetics
Some people have genes in their bodies that make them more prone to form an addiction. This is because of specific genes that are vulnerable to addictive behaviour and stress. Some people who possess these genes never become addicted to anything while others form all sorts of addictions.
This is because the environment plays a huge role in “triggering” the behaviour of the genes. And this is where epigenetics comes in. Scientists estimate that our genes count for 40-60 percent when it comes to addiction.
The “addiction genes” do have a purpose, however. In terms of achievement, the “go gene” is a strong force that is there for survival. In an extreme situation where you would need to survive (in childhood circumstances or historically during war and such), the gene gets the person moving. And not just moving, but moving faster and achieving results quickly.
In your adulthood, the addiction then serves as a coping mechanism to protect you from the pain of the unmet need from childhood.
The good news is that both scientists and eastern medicine are confirming and bringing more evidence of the possibility to change our genes through various types of therapy and healing, including gene therapy, breathwork and holistic healing.
This delivers an important message: healing is essential to treating addiction.
Self-image and the escape from self and external circumstances
Many high achievers don’t find fulfilment in other areas of their lives and often struggle with feeling good about themselves.
The sense of feeling worthy and even loved is tied strongly to the achievement and when worthiness can’t be found in the goal, it’s common to turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping or other relief-driven behaviours.
The escape from reality is as much an escape from the self. Poor self-esteem plays a big role here. It’s not uncommon that those who are addicted to high achievement are also addicted to other things like relationships, shopping or sex.
Feeling worthy plays an important role in addiction, which is not discussed enough. If you feel worthy, you feel like you matter.
If you feel like you matter then you have a sense of belonging. Those are both rooted in the need for love which is an essential part of a person’s life and one of our fundamental needs for survival and happiness.
What drives your achievement matters tremendously
Discipline, drive and having healthy goals are all things that actually nurture the self and can be great forms of self-love when done correctly with the right intention.
Achievement can lead to a better self-image and more confidence which boosts your joy for life. When accomplishing goals have a deeper meaning, a person is fulfilling their purpose.
When it’s driven by fear, however (such as the fear of not being good enough or the fear of confronting oneself), both the journey and the destination become less satisfying, and sometimes even lead to depression.
This is where turning to numbing or seeking pleasure in drugs, alcohol, sex, love or other forms of addiction can begin to rise.
The bottom line is that each person has their own experience and everyone is not wired the same biologically and psychologically. This is why finding the right treatment is individual and should be treated as such.
Looking at things like a person’s gene structure, trauma, experiences and brain function all play important roles in finding the way to long-lasting fulfilment and happiness, away from addiction, whatever the addiction is.
Whether that is an addiction to achievement or to something more detrimental. Social factors, health – food, hormones, the gut, organs, physical activity, etc, can all help with achieving freedom from addiction and reaching success with fulfilment.