Are you at ease in the spotlight? Do you enjoy being the center of attention, entertaining family and friends? Those qualities are the perfect setup for a career on stage — but they’re also a recipe for performance addiction.
The term was popularized by Dr. Arthur Ciaramicoli, EdD, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of the book, Performance Addiction: The Dangerous New Syndrome and How to Stop It From Ruining Your Life. Although it isn’t found as an official diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it describes a set of behaviors and lifestyle choices that carry with them hazards and benefits.
Obvious benefits include being viewed in a favorable light and as a shining star. Hazards include a treadmill-like struggle to keep up performance levels, increased impatience with self and others, physical and emotional decline and, in extreme cases, addiction and health crises.
According to Dr. Ciaramicoli, performance addiction isn’t the same as merely being a high achiever. “Performance addicts have an irrational belief system,” ABC News quoted him as saying. “They believe the only way to be loved or really accepted is to perform better.”
The Origin of Performance Addiction
For most people, performance addiction begins in childhood. Some young people internalize explicit and implicit messages that to be appreciated, or to receive and maintain attention, they must keep up appearances and rack up achievements. Consider a child with shelves filled with trophies and walls displaying ribbons and awards— validation of their hard work and accomplishments.
There’s no certain kind of family in which children are more prone to reliance on this kind of approval, as this recovering performance addict can attest.
I come from a long line of hard workers. My grandparents settled in America after fleeing the pogroms against Jews in Russia. Survival was first on their minds.
My father was the third of the four children they raised. When he’d describe his childhood, he’d say with embarrassment that his family was “on relief”— receiving assistance from the public welfare system. He was determined to move up in the world, to support himself and his family.
He did that, even as he remained in the working class. I can’t remember my sister or me lacking anything material because of my parents’ work ethic. My mother used to say my father “worked crazy hours” — primarily as a milkman and a bus driver — to support us. She held several part-time jobs so she could be home with us, and once we were old enough to be home alone, she began a full-time job as a switchboard operator.
On top of all that, my parents volunteered and socialized with friends. Their relationship seemed ideal. They made looking good appear easy and seemed to be universally loved. I never heard anyone say an ill word against them.
But the idyllic home life my parents created led me to have high expectations for myself. I had asthma and foot problems that required treatment. These health challenges made me believe I needed to perform at increasingly higher levels to keep up with my peers and compensate for feeling like a burden to my parents.
Sources of High Expectations for Ourselves
What we believe about expectations isn’t always explicit — much of it comes from observing and making connections. These ideas can wait until adulthood to bloom.
This need for approval became dramatically apparent in my career, as I emulated my father’s compulsion to work hard. A desire to share financial responsibility with my husband and a need to keep up appearances fueled my work. I felt compelled to seem professional and reliable, the “go-to” person for family, friends, and clients.
My performance addiction also took the form of “savior behavior.” I felt irrationally responsible for outcomes — in my life and in the lives of those in my counseling practice. Logic couldn’t convince me I was putting appearance before solid therapy. After all, who wouldn’t feel proud to hear positive feedback from clients and their families?
It felt like I imagine a drug high would — and I craved more. I looked for more ways to dazzle. I kept seeking interventions that would help patients, but additionally, the addiction I was unaware I had.
Recognizing Performance Addiction
Most people with addictions don’t recognize the impact of their behaviors, even if they’re aware of the repetitive patterns and compulsion to continue. The same inquiry/cost-benefit analysis that can be applied to substance abuse can help deal with performance addiction. Ask yourself these questions:
- What does it mean to you to be center stage?
- What messages did you receive about performance in your formative years?
- How did you internalize these messages?
- How does it feel when your efforts aren’t applauded?
- What do you believe is your purpose?
- What’s the upside of continuing these patterns?
- What toll have these patterns taken on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of your life?
- Can you imagine changing them, even an attitude or behavior at a time?
- Who will you turn to for support as you change?
Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist, book author, motivational speaker, licensed social worker and interfaith minister. She has worked in the fields of addiction and recovery as both therapist and educator for 35 years. Edie covers topics such as relationships, communication, mental health, stress management, spirituality, sexuality, loss and grief, as well as resilience in the face of life changes.