Thoroughbreds: The Unrelenting Standards and Self-Sacrificing Schemas

Olly* is a captain in the army. “Basically, there’s expectations on us that we’ll never meet, and if we did happen to meet them, they’d only get higher”. Olly was seeing me for burnout related depression. “I know I should have put my hand up earlier and got help, I just couldn’t let myself off the hook that easily”.

“I just love my team, love working on a project with them, love when our back is against the wall”. Kara* is a change manager at a major bank, currently on stress leave. “No one asked me to work hard, I enjoyed it!”. Kara had started to experience escalating panic attacks, followed by a psychiatric admission at a private hospital. “I had no idea I’d pushed it that far”.


A former client once told me about a conversation with his boss.

“There are three types of workers”, the boss said. “The first sort is the Carp. The Carp are swimming around the bottom, stirring up muck. You have to identify the carp and get rid of them or neutralise them”.

“Then you’ve got your Clydesdales. The Clydesdale always shows up to work and does a solid job but isn’t anything special. Most workers are Clydesdales.

“Then, you’ve got your Thoroughbred, which are the stars of the show.

This metaphor has always stuck with me because I found it hilarious that the metaphor mixed two horse types with a fish. But I think it’s quite relatable when you think of workplaces. Some people are trouble-making Carp. Most are steady-working Clydesdales. But the remaining few are the Thoroughbreds. Who are the Thoroughbreds?

Employers are always seeking hardworking, dedicated types who can work as a team. These are the thoroughbreds. The thoroughbreds are often well paid and are promoted quickly. Most people value them and aspire to be more like them.

The productivity of the thoroughbred benefits the organisation, the boss and society as a whole. And the Thoroughbred earns significant respect and money. It’s a win, win, win.

But what if this extreme level of productivity is driven by something pathological? And what if the Thoroughbred is not the winner that they seem?

Scheming Schemas

Schema Therapy proposes that recurring life problems are the result of emotional needs being insufficiently met in childhood. The unmet needs and resulting problems are called “Schemas” or “Life-traps”. Traditional schema model recognises 18 separate schemas.

Some schemas, such as the Mistrust or Abandonment schemas, are recognisably bad. They typically cause suffering to the person holding the schema and to their loved ones. No one feels good when I tell them that I think they have a Mistrust Schema.

Other schemas are a mixed blessing.

The Unrelenting Standards schema

The Unrelenting Standards Schema is thought to develop due to a lack of unconditional love from parents. People who feel that they are worthy only of when they are achieving. A frantic urgency is associated with achievement and productivity because the individual’s worth is tied up with success.

People with the unrelating standards schema have often done well in school or work. They are often goal-directed competitive people who chase a win at all costs, because losing would be crushing.

This schema is often seen in people who temperamentally over-compensate. The schema itself might develop as a reaction to some deeper unmet need, like the need for secure attachment. In this case, the schema’s message becomes something like: “I don’t need human attachment as long as I can be successful”.

The Self-Sacrifice Schema

The Self-Sacrifice Schema often develops when children are given adult responsibilities from a young age. They are expected to defer their needs for the needs of others, typically parents who are struggling or younger peers.

As an adult, the person with this schema is a giver. They do more for their partner, their employer, their family or friends. And if they don’t, they feel enormous guilt.

Luckily, or unluckily, Self-sacrificers get patted on the back and told that they are angels, saints or some other breed of holy-person. So, they feel good. Feel good until they don’t.

Olly and Kara

Olly and Kara had very strong unrelenting standards and self-sacrifice schemas.

Olly was a Thoroughbred. He was a hard worker and a problem-solver and his boss liked him for it. But Olly didn’t feel like a winner. He was struggling.

Olly was right. His bosses did ask the impossible of him and others. The difference between Olly felt extreme guilt and anxiety when he didn’t achieve perfect, whereas many of his peers psychologically resigned to good enough. It wouldn’t have mattered how much time Olly put into his work, his unrelenting standards schemas would never be happy.

Kara did feel like a winner much of the time. She felt stable and happy in her team. Most of her friends and family commented in awe and concern about the hours she kept, but she felt good. She received accolades and respect at work.

Kara started to crack when there was a work shake up. A new, hard-to-read manager came over the top of her. A complaint was made about her unrealistic expectations by one of her team. She tried to work harder to get out of the problem but had nowhere to go. The spiral had begun.

Complicit Organisations

This article is not meant as a call to seek therapy if you are like Olly or Kara.

It’s meant as a warning about your employer.

Organisations, especially big ones like banks and the defence forces feast on thoroughbreds. And right now, recruiters in their droves are seeking out fresh meat.

Organisations, by their design, want to get the most out of workers. And they will seek out thoroughbreds who are willing to give more. And this relationship will seem to be symbiotic and egalitarian. A win, win, win.

But people with the unrelenting/sacrificing mix are driven to give ever more of themselves. And these thoroughbreds will continue to give well past the point of burnout. And they will blame themselves when they do. And their bosses will shake their head and tut-tut, and say “I told them to take it easier” at the next well-being day.

The Thoroughbred is driven to win. Driven to be useful for the team.

But when it has a fall at the track, the curtain will be put around it and it will be disposed. It will be forgotten all too easily.  The organisation out to find a fresh Thoroughbred to take its place.



* Names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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