Sensitive people have a strong need to self-actualize, but it becomes a problem when they aim to be “the best” just for acceptance.
When I was 14 years old, someone told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to be the best one. Considering I was not sure what he meant, and that he was a teenager himself, I probably should not have taken his advice seriously. But, being the highly sensitive person (HSP) that I was, I did. I told myself that I had to become the best writer in the world so people would accept me. Thus began my pursuit of unachievable excellence.
Around this time, another friend showed me a bestselling fantasy book. He was excited as he said, “This author was 16 when he wrote this. Isn’t that cool?” I certainly thought it was, and somehow also got it in my head that to be the best writer, I had to write and publish a bestselling book by the time I was 16.
When my 16th birthday came, you can imagine how disappointed I was in myself that I hadn’t achieved my goals. I also didn’t feel like I was accepted for being myself, and my inability to change that reality — through my accomplishments (or lack thereof) lowered my sense of self-worth. This was the first of many disappointments that resulted from my unrealistic expectations of being #1.
You might not have experienced the same pressure as I did. But perhaps you have felt that, to be accepted by your peers, family, or friends, you had to be the #1 student, player, dancer, singer, entrepreneur, mom… the list goes on and on.
There may have been some school that you felt you had to get into, or some job that you had to get. You might have felt that you had to stay the course, climb the ladder, and add titles to your name so people would take you seriously and listen to you.
Maybe you’ve told yourself there are things you should have achieved by the time you are 40. Or 50. Others might have told you that you need to own more assets, be more confident, and hold more power over more people.
And the media may constantly be telling you about the expensive cars, shoes, bags, or real estate that you need to show as yours. It’s likely that while you feel the pressure, you also feel discontentment with who you are and what you now have.
In this article, we’ll explore where the pressure to be “the best” stems from for sensitive people, and we’ll look at how we can meet that need — without burning out in the process.
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The Need to Self-Actualize
First of all, we must remember that it’s not bad to want to be a high-achiever. This is common whether you’re an introvert, highly sensitive, neither, or both. This desire leads to growth and self-improvement.
In the mid-20th century, psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow spoke about a need that humans have. We want to become the best versions of ourselves. Rogers used the word “self-actualization” to refer to the pursuit of this need.
For sensitive people, who are introspective and creative, the need to self-actualize can be very strong. We feel called to it. We see glimpses of our purpose and potential, and what we can do for our communities. We work hard at making it become a reality. This climb toward the peak of our potential can be gratifying and purposeful.
The problem arises when we try to be “the best” in order to be accepted or to feel better about ourselves. Here are three reasons we might want to become the best — which may not serve us in the long run.
3 Not-So-Great Reasons to Become ‘The Best’
1. You feel that if you are the best, people will (finally) accept you.
Many of us sensitive people don’t feel accepted. We hear how we “should” and “shouldn’t” be. This drills into us the idea that we are not acceptable the way we are.
To be accepted is a strong and natural need. In order to meet the need, we may think up ways to win others’ approval. We might think that one way is to prove that we are worthy of acceptance by showing people all our achievements.
However, aiming to succeed, or become “#1” in order to gain acceptance, can be problematic. When we’re trying to be the best to be accepted, the focus is on what we think people will like — via people-pleasing — not on who we are. We are no longer thinking of being the best versions of ourselves, but the best in other people’s eyes or in comparison to society’s standards. The pressure can get intense — and when we push ourselves further than we can go, we are bound to get overwhelmed and burnt out.
If, perchance, we fail to reach our goals, our self-doubt may deepen and we might think we are unworthy of being accepted by others. Even if we achieve all we set out to do, we may realize that the perception of the people around us doesn’t change in our favor.
In fact, accomplishing our goals might make sensitive people acutely aware that others don’t accept us for who we are. If they just respect the power, resources, and fame we hold, or if they fear or envy it and keep their distance from us, we will sense it and feel worse.
2. You’re addicted to the high that comes with compliments.
Maybe you rarely receive praise, but hear ears full of criticism. For HSPs, receiving criticism can be very painful. We internalize it, and it can have long-lasting effects on us. Understandably, criticism lowers our self-esteem.
However, you may have noticed that when we accomplish something, the criticism stops for a moment and appreciation comes our way instead. The compliments feel good. The praise boosts our self-worth (at least for a while) and we feel important.
However, these positive feelings are short-lived. When the dopamine high wears off, we default to how we felt before. We might feel unvalued and unworthy again. Maybe the cycle of criticism starts again. To feel good about ourselves, we might fish for compliments and chase success like a drug we’re addicted to. It can become a vicious cycle.
3. You don’t believe you have intrinsic worth.
As humans, we place a lot of value on what people do. Our achievements — in terms of our education, career, family, and finances play a huge impact on our standing in society and our access to opportunities. As a result of this, we constantly experience the need to prove our merit to the world.
But I wonder if this has resulted in us de-emphasizing our intrinsic worth as individuals. Are we so fixated on what we do — and whether we contribute to others and society at large — that we no longer believe we are worthy enough? Does this thinking that our worth depends on our skills, abilities, and resources start us off with a low balance of self-esteem?
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4 (Better) Ways to Meet Your Needs as a Highly Sensitive Person
The need for acceptance, appreciation, esteem, and self-actualization are unlikely to disappear. They are a part of our human experience. This means we can’t ignore them. However, becoming “the best” is not the most fruitful method of meeting these needs. There are other ways to truly satiate them that come with peace and confidence instead of overwhelm and low self-worth. Here are four things that I’ve found helpful.
1. Practice self-acceptance — look at all you are doing right instead of wrong.
Sometimes, in our preoccupation with being accepted by others, we forget that our perceptions of ourselves are of paramount importance. We can, and need, to accept ourselves. In fact, for intuitive HSPs — which is most of us — ours might be the most important voice of all. Research shows that self-acceptance increases both our sense of worth and our wellbeing.
That said, it’s also not easy to accept ourselves. HSPs often have a strong inner critic. The inner critic is that voice within us that won’t stop pointing out all our imperfections and mistakes. It’s the part of us that judges us.
To this end, I have a loud inner critic. I’ve noticed that I am often harder on myself than others. I have strong expectations of myself, which I would never ask of anyone else. As such, I quickly feel embarrassed about my sensitivity, disappointed in my failures, or angry at my inability to “do things right.”
When I’m feeling this way, it helps me to think of myself as the toddler who falls while learning to walk. We wouldn’t yell at that child, would we? We’d probably be excited that they’re trying. We’d find it oddly cute when they stumble. And we’d marvel at their resilience.
Self-acceptance is doing this for ourselves. We put away the judgment and criticism in favor of curiosity to see what we’ll come up with and do next. Then, when we get to know ourselves better, we can honor the sensitive person that we are and promise to be loving and kind toward ourselves, no matter what.
2. Believe the people who do cherish and accept you.
In addition to downplaying self-acceptance, we often dismiss appreciation from the people who are close to us. For instance, we may think that appreciation from our moms or partners doesn’t count, because they’re biased or have no choice but to compliment us. But this is not true.
Remember: Anyone who accepts us, and all our sensitive traits and overall being, does so because they choose to. Every family member, friend, and fan who appreciates us does so because we matter to them and make a difference in their lives. By hearing and internalizing their words, we honor them, and it becomes easier to believe that we are accepted and loved by the people around us.
3. Define what being “the best” is in your own way, not based on what society or others think.
As we’ve seen earlier, the pursuit of being “the best” is not bad, per se. It’s just that, sometimes, we focus on being the best in comparison to others, or what society thinks we “should” be or do.
For instance, when I wanted to be “the best writer in the world,” it was in comparison to other writers. However, comparing ourselves with others can be detrimental. It’s also unfair to us. Our individuality means that none of us can be like any other person. We’re incomparable. Fixating on comparisons can lead to overwhelming emotions.
After feeling dissatisfied, sad, and tired for years on end, I finally changed my definition of “the best.” Instead of trying to be the best writer in the world (whatever that means), I decided to focus on things that fit my sensitive nature better. I chose to emphasize my internal growth and to find the clearest words to best convey what I had to say to the people who read or hear what I have to say. This expectation is more innate, kind, and achievable for me.
Instead of trying to be better than everyone else or becoming “number one,” we could focus on allowing our uniqueness and sensitivity to shine through in all its brilliance. This might require that we spend time with ourselves, in order to become comfortable with ourselves as sensitive people. In this way, we can better understand what we are capable of and where we want to go. But it’s an investment that’s worth our while, because the goals we set for our growth from this space of curiosity and self-acceptance are more likely to be realistic. It will also feel more natural and sit well with our HSP personalities.
4. Celebrate your milestones, whether big or small.
Finally, I’ve learned that it’s important to notice the small wins, too, not just the bigger ones.
For instance, I tend to get sick when traveling. So when I’d go on a road trip with my family or friends, I used to get restless waiting to arrive at the destination. However, after a few drives, I realized that it doesn’t help to grow irritable or repetitively ask, “Are we there yet?”
However, there were two things that did help. The first was to notice the signs on the side of the road that said how much further we must go and, therefore, they’d help me figure out how far we had come. The second was to stop along the journey — especially where it was scenic — to breathe in the freshness of the place.
Many of us are familiar with the narrative that we will be happy when we get somewhere or achieve something. We think things like, “If only I had my loved ones’ support, I’ll be happy,” “If I get that job, I’ll be recognized and valued,” or “When I become more confident and outgoing, I will be respected.”
This also applies to self-actualization. We might be tempted to think that we’ll be accomplished only after we have achieved our full potential. In all these cases, we are so focused on the end point that the distance we’ve covered, and the beauty that surrounds us, blur into oblivion.
Changing this habit can have a profound impact on us. I’ve found that it helps to be sensitive to the little wins. Pausing after every small milestone, to appreciate how much we’ve grown and how far we have come, can encourage and build us up tremendously. It can remind us that the journey itself is beautiful. It can also help us accept and appreciate ourselves and get to the bigger wins.
Dig Deeper to Meet Your Root Needs
As sensitive people, we are familiar with the pressure to achieve greatness to prove ourselves and gain acceptance. However, we have probably also noticed that this pursuit is disillusioning, as well as emotionally and physically draining.
So, rather than trying to be the best in order to be accepted, we can dig deeper to meet the root needs of acceptance, appreciation, esteem, and self-actualization. We can do this by accepting ourselves as HSPs and counting all the appreciation and accomplishments we gain along the way. I’m certainly trying, and hope you will, too.
You might like:
- What It Felt Like Growing up as an Overachieving Introvert
- How Introverts and Sensitive People Can Finally Stop People Pleasing
- 27 ‘Strange’ Things You Do Because You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
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