Alcoholism and the Overachiever: Breaking the Cycle of Dependence

group of women drinking after wrk

Attempting to live as an overachiever is an extremely difficult task. It is simply not sustainable – and yet so many people try to live like this.

An overachiever is not to be confused with a high performer, although both may appear to be just as successful. A high-performing person will achieve great results but without the anxiety, relentless exhaustion from overwork, and high expectations that overachievers put on themselves.

No matter what they accomplish and how much they do, overachievers never feel balanced, content or really happy. They will always be striving to achieve more, with little if any sense of reward from what they do.

This means they often put themselves under pressure, are continually self-critical, suffer with anxiety, and even depression. When their negative thoughts and feelings become too much, many overachievers turn to something that can alleviate how they are feeling, at least temporarily.

That can mean drinking alcohol excessively. As well, some turn to drugs, including prescribed drugs although they might take much more than recommended.

What defines an overachiever?

Here are some signs that show someone could be an overachiever:


Work is of the utmost importance to them. They will hardly ever switch off from it, and will work from the early hours until late into the night, including many if not all weekends. Taking a vacation is rare and even if they do, they’ll still work.

Outcome is everything

Overachievers only focus on achieving the end result. It gives their low self-esteem a temporary boost. But rather than feeling a sense of pride in their achievements it is more a relief that they have not failed.

Criticism is taken very personally

An overachiever will most often take even constructive criticism extremely badly. They feel it is a personal attack and any criticism they receive feels like they are being told they are a failure.


Signs of perfectionism include appearing aloof, procrastination, setting impossibly high standards, often being alone, never apologizing, and being highly critical including to (and perhaps especially to) themselves. 

Perfectionists will incessantly struggle to achieve a constantly burgeoning list of goals – yet so many of these goals are either unrealistic or unachievable. When they do not achieve all these goals, low self-esteem becomes even lower.

What are the negative impacts of being an overachiever?

tired man on desk with paper stuck in eyes

Being an overachiever will have negative impacts on a person’s mental, emotional, and physical health. These include:

When in a negative state of being, the overachiever will often seek ways to avoid or change the way they feel. This can lead to dependence or an addiction – most commonly alcohol (as it is typically the most readily available option).

What is the cycle of dependence?

When someone becomes dependent or addicted to alcohol or drugs, it can happen over some time or sometimes very swiftly. This depends on the individual and their circumstances.

The key aspects of a cycle of dependence are:

1. Trigger

Often there is a trigger that starts it all. For an overachiever it could be a bad workday or just a build-up of stress, anxiety, and feeling generally low. They seek to push down or stop these negative feelings as quickly as possible – and the only way they presently know how to do this is by reaching for alcohol or drugs.

2. Craving

The overachiever will get a craving for some alcohol or drugs, which is a feeling that gets progressively more intense and overwhelming. Getting the drink or substance to change the way they feel becomes the only thing that matters to them and the only thing they can think about at this stage.

3. Drinking or using

drunk man lying on couch after work

There is frequently a ritualist aspect to this. For instance, someone who is alcohol dependent may always go to the same bar or use the same glass to drink from.

It is all part of feeling in control as an antidote to their inner turmoil. They are seeking instant gratification and to swiftly change their negative feelings.

4. Remorse, shame and guilt

Usually afterwards – although sometimes during drinking or using – there will be terrible feelings of remorse, shame, and guilt. This becomes an increasingly familiar negative feeling and often becomes more intense each time it happens.

Behind this can be the fact that the person has vowed to themselves to never drink or use again. So, when it happens once more, and they sense their powerlessness over it, they will become consumed with remorse, shame, and guilt even more than the previous time. 

5. Hangover and withdrawal

At the same time as feeling remorse, there is likely to be a hangover or symptoms of withdrawal. In a physical sense, the person will feel horrendous.

Combined with the feelings of remorse, shame, and guilt, this can bring on feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. At this stage, the person knows only one way to change this negative physical, emotional, and mental state.

They start to think about alcohol or using again – and so the cycle starts all over again.

How overachievers can break the cycle of dependence

What to do if your friend or relative is an addict - Tikvah Lake Recovery

Avoid triggers

Perhaps the most key thing to breaking the cycle of dependence is to avoid the triggers. This will help to stop the craving.

This can mean avoiding certain people and places. A trigger could also be such as a certain smell, sound or a particular mood.

Gaining awareness of potential triggers from chatting with a professional or experienced 12-Step group member is also a useful thing to do. Then, it’s a case of learning how to avoid them, but also developing coping strategies if a trigger does arise.

As a well-known phrase in Alcoholics Anonymous states: “It’s the first drink that does the damage.” On first hearing this, many people think this is wrong: that it’s the fifth or sixth drink that does the damage.

But, of course, without the first drink, there can be no second drink and so on. The same is true for drug use.

Speak with a counselor or therapist

For overachievers, therapy is a necessary step to help them discover the root causes of why they are relentlessly trying to achieve things – and consequently, due to feeling negative again, setting themselves up for more alcohol or drug abuse. 

Much of this will center on why they are so compelled to seek external validation and approval.

They will need the guidance of a professional who can help them understand why, for example, they have low self-esteem. With this knowledge, they can start to build up how they value themselves again.

Lower stress levels in healthier ways

Learning about healthy ways to change the way they feel, as well as avoiding certain negative feelings, is also essential. This can include exercising at least five times a week, perhaps taking up a mind-body practice like yoga or meditation, and eating healthily.

Starting a hobby that is enjoyable can also be a great help. This could be such as joining a gardening community, a book club, or starting classes in art, writing, dance, or photography.

This will all help to lower stress, as well as giving the person a chance to meet new people who can be supportive.

Alcohol and drug dependence is a serious problem that often ruins lives. Thankfully, it is possible to overcome it – and at Tikvah Lake we offer many proven treatment options, which we fully personalize for each of our guests.

Our friendly experienced team has helped many people who were struggling with alcohol and/or drug dependence and addiction. 

Contact us today to hear how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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