How Forgiveness Can Help High Achievers Protect Their Success

High achievers are used to controlling their world.  They pride themselves on out working and out doing everyone.  However, some high achievers are motivated by an anger that’s destroying their health. Here’s a process for working toward forgiveness (i.e., letting go of chronic anger) without sacrificing success.

Forgiveness is hard

Anger Is a Strong Motivator

I’ve had several “I’ll show them” chips on my shoulder that motivated me for decades. I used this anger to push harder than everyone around me.  For years, I wore it as a badge of honor.

Interesting motivator for a therapist, right?

Then my health crashed into a wall and I had to re-think my “I’ll take them down” plan.

As part of my revised plan, I had to let go of some of the anger that had been fueling my academic and professional life and pissing off people around me for years.   I learned this letting go process is often part of “forgiveness.”

Forgiveness had been hard for me to understand for a long time.  I’ve recently learned that, among high achievers, I was in good company.

The problem is that we get mixed messages.

We’re taught from early on that forgiveness is key to being a “good person.”

But, if our life takes an unexpected turn, we’re encouraged to take that anger and channel it into something productive.

How many top athletes, entertainers, and business people have stories that involve building themselves into a badass to get back at someone?


forgiveness is hard for high achievers


Three Key Ways High Achievers Struggle with Forgiveness

Forgiveness is hard for most people.  High achievers tend to have extra difficulty due to these key reasons:

  • Many high achievers are driven by anger and revenge.

The anger generated by “I’ll show them” has built whole careers and empires.  It’s extremely motivating to want to show the people that wronged you how wrong they turned out to be.

You may be carrying a chip (or 12) on your shoulder that pushes you to out work and out do everyone else.  When you can’t achieve your goals and have tangible symbols of success, you get anxious or depressed.

You also get scared.

Why scared?

Because what if it turns out all those things people said are true?

The idea of turning out to be a nobody, or even worse, average, is terrifying.

It’s so much easier (and fun) to play and talk big to cover up cracks in your super hero suit.


  • High achievers want to keep the rage that fueled their success.

Why would you give up the fuel that’s propelled your success?

Many high achievers worry that, if that rage goes away, nothing will take its place.  They won’t be willing to sacrifice everything.  They’ll go soft.

It’s a valid fear.  You’re in good company.  No one can guarantee you won’t go soft.

Unfortunately, continuing to use anger as a motivator will wear you into the ground.


  • High achievers hate feeling they can’t control the universe.

You’ve been rewarded nicely for your impact and influence. You get stuff done.

In your mind, there’s very little you can’t figure out.

The idea that you can’t change a person or the past can be too difficult to stomach.

Telling you to “just let it go” is like telling you to “just drive that way” when you need specific directions.

You want your life compartmentalized, organized, and measurable. Any plan has to be complete, make sense, and be worth it.


high achievers struggle with forgiveness


High Achievers Need to Protect Their Biggest Asset:  Themselves

An obvious question is, if anger and revenge have worked well for so long, why give them up?

Google “forgiveness.”  You’ll get over 200,000 entries.  That probably means no one has cornered the market on what it is or how to do it.

So, why bother?

Resentment (i.e., chronic anger at someone), the opposite of forgiveness, keeps our brain in constant crisis mode. As a result, our stress hormone, Cortisol, stays high for longer than our bodies can tolerate.

Over time, this leads to anxiety, depression, damage to every organ in our body, and a weak immune system that can’t keep us healthy.

The result is chronic illness, pain, and chronic depression and/or anxiety.

Over time, you’re screwed.

We’ve all heard that holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy dies.  Turns out this is actually true.

You consistently rely on one thing to get you through any situation:  yourself.

If you don’t protect that asset, you risk losing everything you’ve worked for.

Name one person you’re mad at who’s worth losing everything you’ve worked for.


steps toward forgiveness


Two First Steps Toward Forgiveness

Forgiveness means different things to different people.

However, there are two steps that anyone, especially high achievers, can take because they make sense:

  • Let yourself off the hook for being mad at someone. You get to have your feelings. You don’t have to like or approve of what people have done.


By letting yourself off the hook for not liking someone or for being angry at them, you stop beating yourself up.  Therefore, you stop failing at being a “good person.”


  • You don’t have to let someone off the hook.  Instead, it can mean that you have chosen to stop resenting them in order to protect yourself. Consider this:


    • Resentment throws your body into a constant state of fight or flight. You’re constantly pumping out huge levels of stress hormones that hurt your physical and mental health.


    • By resenting someone, not only are you reliving the pain anytime it’s triggered by a memory, event, date, or place, but you’re also repeatedly damaging yourself.


In that way, the other person keeps winning.

They hurt you the first time. Then they hurt you on an ongoing basis.  That affects your past, present, and future.  They don’t have to be near you, or even alive, for this to happen.


next steps in forgiveness


Next Steps

It’s important for high achievers to approach forgiveness from a logical point of view and for it to happen slowly.  They have to feel it’s worth it.  That’s true for anyone trying to change.


If you’re a high achiever, here’s an initial road map to get you started:

  • Let yourself off the hook for having feelings. You have them.

Anger is a normal human emotion.  No one expects you to like every person that’s ever wronged you.


  • Ask yourself whether holding on to these emotions is worth destroying your health. No one is asking you to give up your career or success.

But, what would your life be like if your body stopped falling apart?  What would your life be like if you could stop using work, alcohol, over spending, hours on line, or pills to numb out feelings?


  • Pick one person you could imagine no longer resenting.

Not because you think they’re great, but because resenting them doesn’t serve you anymore.

It did for a long time.  That’s great.  You milked that for all it was worth.

What if it just doesn’t serve you anymore? 

When you think of them, remind yourself that the damage this anger causes isn’t worth it.  You’re choosing yourself over this other person.


Start easy.

Maybe it’s the jerk from high school who constantly cheated off you and wound up getting great grades that year by virtue of a seating assignment instead of studying.

(And yes, if you sat next to me in 10th grade bio and history, I’m talking about you).

Gradually move on from there.


Ultimately, no one is worth it.  You matter too much for them to be worth it.

When you’re ready to do the heavy lifting, give us a call.  We help high achievers get the tools and strategies they need to thrive.  This is one tool you definitely need.

Wishing you success that invigorates you.


Dr. Levy

Clinical Director

Bucks County Anxiety Center


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