No More Gold Stars: Chapter 1 – Identifying the Problem

Recently, I was talking with someone I am very close to. We agreed that we are both very lucky and, compared with many people, we have not suffered badly through the pandemic. I had Covid 19 way back before the vaccinations but, although I felt really ill for nearly a fortnight, I wasn’t hospitalised and I don’t seem to have been left with long term damage. She’s had it very recently but it was milder and she’s basically over it now. We have both been able to work, with some adaptations. We’re agreed – we are very blessed.

And yet…

‘So I feel guilty,’ she said.

‘I don’t,’ I said, ‘but I do find myself wondering if something will go wrong. It doesn’t seem fair – especially when you look at what’s happening in Ukraine. Or Syria. Or Yemen. Or Aghanistan – or countless other places.’

‘Yes, so I have to keep working,’ she said. Her job is all about caring for people. ‘I’ve got to the point where I’ve forgotten what to do if I’m not working.’

Let’s set aside my doom-laden paranoia that if things are going well for me, then the world is likely to manufacture a set-back. That’s something we can come back to later. Let’s look at what’s going on for my guilt-burdened friend.

What is this? Has she become a workaholic? I could certainly argue that case. But why? This is not a person who, historically, has been drawn to the demons of addiction – the fags, the drink, the drugs, the games, the sex – all those dopamine-rich agents of destruction. Far from it. I can hardly imagine a person less likely to end up in rehab. All she has ever wanted is to be good and to do good. Like me, as a child, she wanted gold stars. And there’s the rub. There are no more gold stars for her now – but she, like so many of us, has been conditioned to expect and need them in order to validate herself. My contention is that the guilt and the compulsion to keep on working are rooted in that need.

‘Fridge Door Syndrome’

Professor Steve Peters writes in a slightly different way about this in ‘The Chimp Paradox’. He calls it ‘fridge door syndrome’ and explains how well-meaning parents greet our every creative endeavour at nursery school with delight and praise. ‘Darling, that’s marvellous! Let’s stick it on the fridge door!’ And so, unintentionally, they begin excavating a bottomless hole in our souls and psyches, which will never be filled because how can we ever be satisfied with what we have achieved? How can we ever have ‘done’ enough? Our identity has been inadvertently hi-jacked and we can only pay the ransom through endlessly achieving in one way or another – whether it’s in our careers, our sports, our finances or even in our ‘goodness’. Instead of being valued for who we are, we have learnt to be valued for what we do or achieve. Our parents’ innocent encouragement has condemned us to a lifetime of striving. Like my friend, even when we know we are really very fortunate and it ought to be possible to rejoice in our blessings, we are hounded. We feel guilty. With what seem like perfectly reasonable motives (It is only right to share my gifts and talents! I really must fulfil my potential! There is so much to fix – how can I not help? etc), we drive ourselves onwards, never feeling satisfied of our own personal worth and never able to fully relax and enjoy ourselves.

What a position to be in! Here we are, amongst the most privileged to ever live on this planet, and we cannot enjoy it. And in my view, it’s getting worse. My friend and I are both mature women, brought up in the wonderland that existed before the Internet, before phones, before Stranger Danger and before SATS in British schools. We had oodles of free time in which we could wander from home on bikes or on foot (even though the Moors Murders were fairly recent events and within 15 miles of where we lived). During that time our headspace was our own, uninvaded by concerns about how we looked or what our friends were doing. We hadn’t heard of FOMO – what was there to miss out on anyway? Opportunities for anything beyond Guides, Scouts and maybe the odd music or dancing lesson were few. I was regularly reminded by my mother how lucky I was to have swimming lessons AND ballet lessons – and that if I wanted to learn to play the piano, the ballet lessons would have to stop. It was a fairly limited existence but relatively free of the pressures that young people face today, with their slavery to Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok and the like. You cannot blink but someone seems to be assessing your blinking skill.

Despite our relative freedom, my friend and I still became victims of ‘gold star syndrome’. Exams kicked in, even in our restricted lives. There were badges for swimming and ‘grades’ for both piano and ballet. I remember being very proud indeed of my armful of Brownie interest badges – for some of which I had to manufacture the interest to get the badge! This is at age 10. The roots of my addiction to achievement had already enmeshed me.

What it’s like for young people now

That was then. Imagine what it is like now when the young of the affluent spend their spare time hurtling from one educational activity to another and most of those activities have some form of assessment. And then imagine their ‘downtime’ which is haunted by their phones. What is their online presence like? Is it good enough? And what about how they respond to their friends online? Whether it’s keeping up ‘streaks’ on Snapchat, pondering whether to ‘like’ someone’s image or curating their own Instagram accounts, the demand to perform and perform well, is always there for young people. ‘Likes’ are the gold stars of the Internet – and they are, of course, perniciously addictive.

One young ‘high achiever’ expressed her angst like this: ‘I’ve done what was expected of me – I got the great grades, went to a great university and got the great job. What now? Whose going to give me a commendation?’

It’s hardly surprising that we have unprecedented levels of people suffering from anxiety of all sorts, depression, eating disorders and body dysmorphia. How can we be mentally healthy when all our lives we’ve been reliant on the next ‘hit’ of achievement – when our validation of ourselves has all been about the affirmation we get from others? What do we do when, mid-life, we realise we are endlessly addicted to gold stars?

This is the issue that I hope to address in this series of blog posts.

My mission

I am a counsellor who has worked with young people for most of my adult life and who has also spent many years writing professionally. In my therapeutic work, I see ‘gold star syndrome’ over and over again, and amongst friends and relatives and in myself too. It grieves me. I hope these blogs will help us all towards freedom.

We have looked briefly about how we get ensnared but we will all have had individual journeys down into the trap. Precisely how you got hooked is for you to think about, if you want to, perhaps with the help of a therapist or counsellor. My interest here is in ways to escape no matter how you got stuck. I’ll therefore be writing blog posts on different ideas and strategies which have interested and helped me. I don’t aim to be comprehensive but I do aim to provide some pointers towards what might help you and some exercises for you to consolidate what you learn.

Do post a response if you have comments to make or relevant stories to share.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Sheila Robinson

    This sounds very good, Meg. I look forward to the blog series. I have some experience of compassion-focused counselling (in a group) and some of the statements I found most powerful were these: “It’s OK – I am not a failure if something goes wrong.” “It’s OK if I am not meeting expectations.” “I do not need to be perfect.” “Interrupt the instinct to beat yourself up when you’ve failed to meet your own ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ in ‘the allotted time.'” “It’s OK, it’s fine: jobs often take much longer than you think.” Finally, I like this quote from GK Chesterton: ” If anything’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” I hope he really did say it!

  2. megharper

    Thank you, Sheila, for your really helpful input here. Compassion-focused counselling is certainly something I will be looking into in this blog. I love that GK Chesterton quote – I didn’t know he said it. I’ve come across it before via the chaplain at Warwick School who said his mum always said it! It’s hugely liberating from achievement angst!

  3. Veronica Zundel

    Great idea for a series, Meg. I’ve had to leave a poetry group (which has since disbanded!) because I couldn’t cope with everyone getting pamphlets published when I’m not. Now I’ve won a second prize and they’re all piling on the congrats by email, which feels nice – but how long will that last?

    1. megharper

      Thanks for sharing this, Veronica – a great example of the temporary ‘fix’ that tends to happen, even for successful writers like yourself! But you have my congratulations too, of course!!!

  4. Diana Biddlestone

    This looks very thought provoking Meg and I will be following with interest.

    1. megharper

      Thank you, Diana – if you want to chip in at any point, given your expertise, you will be more than welcome!

  5. Cassy Taylor

    I have gold star syndrome and I didn’t know it!!! I am looking forward to reading more of your blogs.

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