High-Achieving Women Think Differently

People carry with them a set of rules or beliefs about the way they feel the world should operate.  These beliefs are shaped by your experiences, the way you were raised, your values, your friends, popular culture, and more.  For many successful women, their deeply held beliefs about how they should live and work produce faulty assumptions or “crooked thinking” that underlie stress patterns.  Dr. Harriet Braiker identified a number of faulty assumptions found in high-achieving women, and I’ve added strategies for breaking the stress cycle each creates.  Here are seven of the most common:

  1. I have to be perfect and do things perfectly.  This faulty assumption can be blamed for procrastination, lack of wanting to hear feedback from others for fear of being criticized, and the tendency to judge yourself and others by very rigid standards.
  • Stress less:  Instead of aiming for perfection, which is unattainable, do as well as you possibly can and call it a day.  Focus on achievement rather than perfection.
  1. I should be able to manage it all and accomplish it all without feeling stressed or tired.  This belief usually shows up when women examine their stress response – “I thought I’d be able to handle more;” or, “I feel so tired at the end of the day.”  This faulty assumption leads many women to think that they are the sole cause of their stress.
  • Stress less:  Pay attention to physical warning signs – digestive issues, headaches, muscle spasms, skin issues, and more.  In addition, monitor your energy levels during the day.  Take breaks when you need to.  Eat regularly.  Get some fresh air.  Ask for help!
  1. I have to prove myself to everyone.  At work, women may question whether they are valued and accepted members of the team and as a result, load up their already busy schedules with extra projects.  At home, a woman might think she has to cook homemade meals, keep a spotless house, and be the world’s best romantic partner.  As Dr. Braiker suggests, “The debilitating nature of holding this expectation lies in the lack of criteria for defining proof.  If you always have to prove your value each time a new demand or opportunity arises, then, in fact, you have not proven your value at all” (Braiker, 2006, p. 169).
  • Stress less.  At work, schedule regular meetings with your boss to ensure you’re meeting career objectives.  At home, talk to your spouse or significant other about expectations for each other.  You may learn that your significant other appreciates a home cooked meal once in awhile, but is perfectly happy to order take out several nights.
  1. I can’t relax until I finish what I have to do.  I heard this one from my mom over Christmas as she was rushing around the kitchen and several of us were waiting for her to play cards.  Many high-achievers feel that relaxation is a luxury that might happen someday; instead, it is a fundamental requirement for good health.
  • Stress less:  Find a way to relax each day that connects with who you are.  I love sports, so I run and do physical activities.  Some people garden.  Others listen to music or cook.  You can’t be your fabulous, high-achieving self if your tank is always empty.
  1. I should be able to accomplish more in a day.  Busy women often have to-do lists that are so long they will never realistically be able to be completed; and, because of your high-achieving nature, you continually add new tasks.
  • Stress less:  Focus on quality rather than quantity.  Did you finish several larger, more worthwhile tasks vs. twenty smaller ones?  Also, keep track of what you actually accomplish instead of what you think you should have accomplished.  When the focus shifts, many women are surprised by all they have completed.
  1. I have to be a people pleaser.  How many of you were told when you were growing up that “nice girls help others” or some variation of that phrase?  Of course it’s wonderful to help others, but to do so while putting your own needs aside sets you up for unhealthy stress.
  • Stress less:  Set limits and boundaries around your time and your schedule.  Practice the art of saying “no.”
  1. I can handle it all on my own.  Each year, my mom’s side meets for a family reunion.  There are generally twenty to twenty-five of us all gathered together under one roof as one family plays host.  When my turn to host arrived, I refused to ask for help, wanting everyone to relax.  I did all the menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning for twenty-two people for two days.  I didn’t enjoy myself, was tired the entire weekend, and was constantly doing something other than having fun with my family.  I learned my lesson.  The next time I hosted, I put each family in charge of a meal and asked them to bring their own pillows and blankets to cut down on laundry.  And what a shock – I actually enjoyed myself and was less of a bundle of stress for my husband and family.
  • Stress less.  Build a network of people in your life who you can count on for help – and ask them to help.  This network can include neighbors, family members, friends, and/or co-workers.  Having this team ready when you need it will save you tons of stress and a few blood pressure points.

It’s important to identify which of these flawed assumptions are present in your life.  The “stress less” strategies above will help, but only if you really understand the belief system in place causing the crooked thinking.  The next time you are stressed, identify and write down the beliefs or thoughts you have about the event and the emotions produced.  As you become more aware of your crooked thinking patterns, you can break the cycle and prevent your body from shifting into stress mode.



Braiker, H. (2006). The type E* woman: How to overcome the stress of being *everything to everybody. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc.

McClellan, S., & Hamilton, B. (2010). So stressed.  New York: Free Press.

Photo Credit: Free Digital Photos

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  1. says

    Some good points. Number 1 resonates with me especially in that I procrastinate because I fear not getting things perfect – and then my clients don’t even notice the subtle things I agonized over anyway.

    I would say it is accurate to say that high achieving PEOPLE think differently, not just women. They ALL share feeling like they should be able to handle everything, etc.

    That being said, some of these feelings that women have really are not just internal and / or the way they were raised. There IS a double standard for women, and often women ARE judged on a different metric. So the intense self criticism bordering on paranoia has some roots in reality: There are a finite number of jobs for women in the very same places where you see no such limitations for men (it just is not talked about) and there still is intense sexism in the working world.

    Just like Ginger Rogers delightfully responded when asked about her work with Fred Astaire: “I do what he does, except backwards and in heels”. We drive ourselves a little batty because there is an additional (glass, if you will) set of invisible pressures on us.

    • Paula Davis-Laack says

      Hi Beth,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I agree with you that many of these patterns do apply to both men and women; in fact, I’m doing a resilience training now and one of the men I’m working with just realized that he feels like he has to handle it all on his own.

      Having said that, I also find that women tend to over-experience these specific kinds of deep patterns more so than men. For example, I don’t find many men feeling like they have to prove themselves, at least not in many professional settings and certainly not in the same way women feel that pressure. I think that gets to the heart of your comment about sexism in the professional world.

      Thanks much!


      • says

        Thanks much for your response. It likely is the case that women feel those pressures more, I just think it is because there is an all-too-real double standard and continuing sexism, which sets up a difficult situation. It IS real. If women are not hyper-mega-uber everything, they don’t get as far as the men who only have to do a fraction of this. And since men are often at the highest levels of power, they often write the rules, sadly.

  2. Kathy says

    Could not agree more with the comments above these are ideals that women are brought up with and taught to conform to Set standards that are not negotiable in their minds because of ingrained ideas that create so much stress The people that can not conform are ousted and chastised Break the traditions and you are a misfit.
    Well try marching to the beat of your own drum and you will be surprised how different life can be

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