Unrelenting Standards Schema

Raj* was on top of his game. He had just received notice that he’d passed a difficult medical exam with a 40% failure rate. He had been sure he would fail and had spent the past month since the exam in a state of anxious depression. Now he’d passed, only the passage of time stood between him and becoming a medical specialist, a goal that he’d spent so many years striving for. But he could not feel happy. He was sure he must be feeling relief, because he most certainly did not feel as despondent as before the results were announced, however he couldn’t find satisfaction in this moment. When he searched his emotions, the main thing he found was an amorphous anxiety and ever-present frustration. Maybe directed at a currently difficult patient, maybe directed at next year’s job search. Apart from this he felt flat.

You may be a person who is like Raj. Some labels attached to such people might be “Workaholics” or “Type As” or “Perfectionists”. People for whom work and academic achievements and/or the status derived from them are paramount. You might appear to others like a success, like a paragon of competence and confidence. Completely in control, organized and oriented to success. However, you may feel like an anxious wreck. Always sure that disastrous failure is around the corner. Always feeling like there is no chance to rest or relax, that your competitors, or life, will catch up and catch you out. Your health might suffer, you might be isolated, you might experience anxiety and panic attacks. A psychological name for this condition is the Unrelenting Standards Schema.

A schema is a way of interpreting, acting and understanding ourselves and the world. Unhelpful schemas have usually been around since childhood. These are referred to as Early Maladaptive Schemas. As a child was your self-esteem derived from your scholastic achievements? Were you told (explicitly or implicitly) that second best was not good enough? Did you have parents who only seemed to pay attention or be happy with you when you were doing well? Did you have parents who sacrificed much themselves, and you felt guilty if you were not doing well? This is the kind of childhood where unrelenting standards can develop. It is common for this schema to develop as a coping method for feelings of emotional deprivation or defectiveness.

Happily, if this is you, you probably have achieved well. Unhappily, if this is you, you probably have difficulty enjoying the fruits of your hard work. It is hard to turn off this schema. Other parts of your life can atrophy when you are so focused on work and school. Others in your life, important others, can feel that they are second best, never important enough to divert you, even briefly, from you career goals. Relationship stress is common with people who have this schema. Your anxiety might feel overwhelming if you take too much time out. It can feel like the horrible failure, which has luckily been kept at bay for so long, will finally catch up with you. Without your academic/career success, what are you? Better keep going. Burn outs and crashes are common for people with this schema. One day the overloading will likely catch up with you and things will fall apart.

What if there was a middle path? What if travelling at 80 instead of 100 was a more durable way to travel. The law of diminishing returns says that, after a point, additional effort starts paying less out. Perhaps you owe it to yourself to be able to finally rest for a moment to enjoy the consequences of your hard work. Or, perhaps you owe it to the family that supported you for all these years. Like all entrenched habits, this schema can change. First, you need to acknowledge its existence. Second, you need to work out what is a reasonable balanced level of time and effort to put into career. After this, learning to cope with your anxiety and changing your work habits is what is needed.


* Not real name. Key details changed to protect anonymity.

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