Performance Addiction: If I do this, then will I finally be happy?


Melissa Killeen

Performance Addiction

As a recovery coach it is hard to surprise me with an addiction of which I am not familiar. Yet, I had never heard of Performance Addiction. Well as Gandhi said “it is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”

I was introduced to the concept by Dr Arthur Ciaramicoli, professor at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge Massachusetts and author of Performance Addiction: The Dangerous New Syndrome and How to Stop it from Ruining Your Life. His book describes in depth  the compulsive ride the over achiever, or the type “A” personality experiences. It is the rollercoaster many of my clients are riding.

Dr Ciaramicoli explains, in a big way, how perfectionism comes into play in performance addiction. Psychologist Robert Stanley and his graduate assistant, Doug Johnson, developed an Almost Perfect Scale to measure the components of perfectionism. Stanley reports that setting standards for perfect performance is desired, reasonable, and after all, is basic to the pursuit of happiness and the American dream. However, Stanley’s work suggests it is our perception of perfectionism that can run amok. The elusive desire to appropriately pursue high standards is adaptive, meaning it is considered healthy perfectionism and is present in many of us. What performance addiction is all about is the pursuit of high standards in order to hide our imperfections or inferiority, which is considered maladaptive perfectionism, or a rather unhealthy pursuit. With performance addiction, when you don’t reach your goal, what happens? You believe you are inferior and that belief turns into a whole bunch of disapproving thoughts, depression, negative self-esteem and unhappiness.

Return to the scene of the crime.

Dr Ciaramicoli invites his readers to return to the “scene of the crime” or where was this performance seed was planted? Where does this belief that if you try harder you will be rewarded by love and happiness begin? The seed is usually found in our families, experiences in our youth, and our schooling.

How many of us grew up in a household where our performance was compared to our worthiness? Did your parents elevate you by bragging to neighbors or by giving you money if you got all A’s on your report card? Did they negate you if you did not make a goal at the soccer game, or get nominated to the honor society? Were they hypercritical of every move you made? The seeds of maladaptive perfectionism were often sown in the home. Some of us marry into it. When two people who grew up in highly perfectionistic households marry, the two play out their maladaptive perfectionism to such a high degree that the level of evaluation and pinnacles of judgment can cause nose bleeds. Yes, things get done, professions may flourish but there is little intimacy, enjoyment or meaningful spontaneity in their lives.

If I do this, then will I finally be happy?

Growing up and doing better than your parents was basically a depression era mind set. Yet today, three out of four kids go to college “to make more money.” A study by UCLA and the American Council on Education completed in 1998 listed the objectives desired after graduating: 74 percent of the students ranked “being very well off” higher than developing a meaningful philosophy on life, helping others or raising a family. The seeds of performance addiction have been sown. After all, isn’t making more money the perfect goal?

Ed Deiner, positive psychologist from the University of Illinois surveyed 100 people from Forbes list of Richest Americans. He found that the happiness quotient was only slightly higher for the richy-rich than the average Joe. But the elusive thought of “maybe if I do it better, work at it harder, I will be rewarded financially and then, I will finally be happy” is firmly planted in everyone’s brain. Especially in the performance addict’s head.

Performance addiction is not just evident in the workplace, it effects love interests as well. In the book General Theory of Love, three psychiatrists have answered the age-old question of “How do I pick a partner?” Thomas Lewis, MD, Fari Amini, MD, and Richard Lannon, MD, explain that emotional attachments are deeply rooted in our early life experiences. Emotional attachments cannot be directed or rationalized. However, these doctors have seen there is a link between the emotional attachments that were vital to our childhood survival and the same attachments that influence our selection of a mate when we are adults. They use the example of a child being dependent on his mother. Whether or not the mother is beautiful, smart or an ax murderer, the child grows to love the emotional patterns he has linked to his mother. So when he is an adult and meets a potential mate who has the same characteristics as his mother, BAMM! He is entranced, feels he belongs with this person, and falls in love.

None of us falls in love with another person. We fall in love with an image.

Ciaramicoli goes into great depth about “Image Love.” The image of “what or who” we think that person we have fallen in love with is. But the reality is; they are not who we think they are. We idealize these lovers into an image of our mother, father, rich woman, smart man, independent woman, athletic man, whatever our mind makes up will be the perfect person for us. We create an image in our brains that this is our true love. But it is really based on our past. Performance addicts are especially prone to this. They have goals in mind for their partner, images that their partners must fit into. Such as their parents must love this person (sometimes this is more important, than the performance addict actually loving this person), this person has to have a certain body type, have a high sexual performance rating or believe in a certain religion. In essence the performance addict is creating a love image of their mate, before he/she even walks in the door on their first date.

Performance addiction is constantly evaluating and the addict’s emotional capital is based on the outcome of that judgment. It gets even more complicated when sex gets into the picture, but that is another blog post, entirely. Again, our shrinks from the book General Theory of Love classify being in love as different from loving. The first distinction between these two is time. Taking the time to get to know the other person. Going through that incredible Dopamine-filled period of infatuation and truly getting to know the other person. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, say that being in love requires a brief acquaintance, a spark, some chemistry, a few dates or maybe a roll in the hay. However, loving requires time, intimacy, and a prolonged surveillance of another person’s soul. Of course as a performance addict it is hard to move from in love to loving, because one has to move from a relationship that is sexually exciting, passionate, alive with attraction, tons of verbal acceptance and compliments to, well, let’s call it boring, normal relationship stuff, truly mediocre life experiences. Such as waking up late, running out the door eating cornflakes, passing gas under the covers or deciding who is going to vacuum the living room.

I can’t even use the word mediocre, it’s terrifying.

A performance addict hates the thought of being average in anything they do. Their mood goes up and down depending on how their performance is rated by others. They are labeling others based on their projected imperfections. Being better than is preferred to being less than, white collar over blue collar, college educated over a high school education, exceptional over mediocre. Whether it is in the workplace, the bedroom or at home, performance addiction is tremendously damaging to relationships. As Dr. Ciaramicoli stated, the scene of the crime started with the family. How do you think the performance addict learned their behaviors? Most likely from another performance addict.

The parent trap.

Besides teaching a performance addict-in-training how to be better than the Jones’ next door, how many times is the child used by the parent-performance-addict first? How does a parent-performance-addict use their children to bolster their self-worth? Does the TV show Dance Moms ring a bell? Have you heard a father brag about his son making the varsity team? Or a mom criticizing her daughter for dying her hair purple? How about a parent who yells and screams at their kids at a little league game? Of course the media has us convinced that every Jewish mother wants her son to grow up to be a doctor. How about in small business? In every family-run business the child is expected to take over the enterprise. What if they don’t want to? It is tough to break this cycle.

All of us need to push away the illusions we have lived with for the majority of our lives. The illusions that money can buy happiness, that true fulfillment comes with business success, we have to take over the business to please Dad or if we are thin, rich or young enough, we can find love.

People who are experiencing these secret compulsions to succeed at any cost are thrown off the merry-go-round every time something changes. Their desire to control, be perfect, too find happiness is their path and they will not accept anything less. Their performance addiction is a defense against feelings of fear and inferiority. These addicts depend wholly on exterior measurements of value, big house, fancy clothes, corner office rather than exposing their vulnerabilities by video taping their daughter with Down Syndrome and putting it on YouTube.

Performance addiction permeates our culture, work, home, church and school. But if we are equipped to treat ourselves as individuals we hold in high regard, if we have deeper respect for ourselves as evidenced by taking care of ourselves, loving our spouses and caring for our family, we can change. Performance addiction can be worked on, healed and then set aside.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who has been treating clients for more than 35 years. Dr. Ciaramicoli is the SoundMindz Chief Medical Officer, and has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School for several years. In addition to treating patients, Dr. Ciaramicoli has lectured at Harvard Health Services, Boston College Counseling Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore as well is also a seasoned media expert, appearing on CNN, Fox News, Comcast TV, Good Morning America Weekend, The O’Reilly Report, and other shows. Dr. Ciaramicoli is the author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenges to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life (Wiley, 2010), Performance Addiction: The Dangerous New Syndrome and How to Stop It from Ruining Your Life (Wiley 2004) and The Power of Empathy: A Practical Guide to Creating Intimacy, Self-Understanding, and Lasting Love (Dutton 2000). His newsletter, blog comments and contact information are available at this web site, You can follow his daily insights at

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