The Parent Achievement Trap

When I was in kindergarten, if I did a good job on my worksheet, I got a pumpkin sticker. I loved those pumpkin stickers. I wanted a sticker on everything I did.

Achievement is one the three main sources of motivation according to the psychologist McClelland.* Achievement is the need to do better than you did before, the need to master skills, the desire to be the best you can be. It is a great source of motivation and can be a great strength: it can help you learn things and do things. It can help you persevere when the learning curve is hard. Honestly, it can be pretty addictive. Yes, you start off small with pumpkin stickers as the gateway drug, but pretty soon you are learning languages, mastering scales in music and getting good grades—you are hooked, with each achievement giving you the hit you are looking for. If I were to be really honest, I would have to admit that I am always jonesing for that pumpkin sticker.

But the problem with achievement is that like all strengths—when you overuse them—they kick you in the pants. Your strength—achievement--actually becomes your weakness. Achievement becomes your trap.

Achievement works for a lot of things. But it doesn’t work for everything. It works great for things that are in your control—and for things that you can see, hear or touch. For example, if I want to organize my pantry—I have control over how fast or slow I want to do it—and when it’s done I can stand back and take pride in the accomplishment. I can give myself a pumpkin sticker. But achievement is much more complicated when something has a timeline of its own—like growing vegetables or flowers. I can plan my perennial border based on colors and what will bloom with what in my typical achievement mode, but Mother Nature rarely cooperates with me. This year, due to the temperature and precipitation, the grape hyacinth that were supposed to bloom with the daffodils waited an extra month and bloomed instead with the hardy geraniums. It was still pretty, but not what I had planned. Similarly, when I plant corn, I can do everything I can to support its growth, but it’s going to take between 60-80 days to get an ear of corn. I can’t just work harder, or put in more effort to get it to produce corn in a week.

One trait of humans is that whenever we run in to hardship and what we are doing isn’t working, we don’t stop doing that thing. No, instead we typically do that thing harder. It always makes me think of the times when I was younger and I locked my keys in my car (when you could still do that) and I could see them in there, and see that the locks were down and yet I would pull on the car handles anyway, hoping that maybe this time, when I pulled the door handle the car would open.

And achievement is one of those things that even when it isn’t working anymore, we do it harder, because achievement oriented people believe in hard work and “Hey, it’s always worked for me before, right?!”

My first clinical internship as a therapist was at a residential treatment facility—I would be doing individual, group and family therapy. And I met with my supervisor, Ann, eager (maybe even overeager) to do a great job. But after our first conversation, Ann had some paradoxical advice. She said, “I want you to get a ‘B’ in this internship. I am sure I looked at her like she had 2 heads. It was the first semester of graduate school and I was still trying to get in to the doctoral program. Anything less than an 'A' was out of the question. In fact, had there been a grade higher than an “A”-- I wanted it. Like all achievement oriented people, I had the belief that an “A” was good and meant your life would turn out the way you planned. And anything less than that was bad and meant that you would automatically go from graduate school to being homeless on the Boston Common, pushing a shopping cart and talking to streetlamps. Achievement people have no belief in a middle ground.

But Ann was absolutely right. You actually can’t get an “A” at helping other people. You can’t work harder to make other people grow, or heal, or develop. You can’t do more—because actually—all of the doing belongs to the other person. You can put effort in to creating a good environment for growth and learning, much like you can when you are growing vegetables—but you can’t put your effort into someone else’s growth. It isn't actually about you at all.

This is an incredibly hard lesson, and one you typically refuse to believe at first. Like Robin Williams talking about how he feared that when he stopped using drugs and alcohol, that he would no longer be funny—I feared that if I gave up achievement, my wonderdrug, there was no possibility of success.

Learning this was one of the most important things I came to learn as a therapist. I had compassion, I had hope, I understood the underpinnings of change. But I had to learn the patience of being, the ability to sit and witness another’s growth, struggle, and development—without the ability to be the one doing something. Really, I had to learn to trust in other powers in the world besides my own effort—to trust in the power of growth and development, to trust in the power of relationships and groups and communities, to trust in a power greater than myself.

And in working with parents I have come to see that getting out of the achievement trap is as difficult for many parents as it was for me as a therapist. High achievement parents want to parent well (okay maybe even perfectly), you want your children to be happy and successful, and you want to be able to use your strength—your achievement—to make it all happen.

And it doesn’t work. Because parenting doesn’t lend itself to achievement. In parenting you have to dance with development and personality and whatever happens that day. You have to dance with their decision to wear pink and orange because they are choosing to match the butterflies to the flowers, not the colors to each other. It’s Improv, not Shakespeare in the Park. In parenting you get to create the environment—and you can use your achievement oriented energy to learn about learning or development or attachment. But what will actually create it is letting go. Believing in something bigger than yourself. Believing in something bigger than your kids.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015

*The other two are affiliation and power. You can be motivated by affiliation, by being connected to others as a way to get things done as a great team player. Or you can be motivated by power: either personalized (moving up the corporate ladder and gain new titles and influence) or socialized power—gaining influence for a greater good. And probably some mix of the three, with one taking precedence when you are stressed