High achievers syndrome: The stress of sustaining aggression

Before talking about adult life, I’m going to talk about what happens in our formative years. Observing social interactions in high school is a good way to notice things that we may not notice as much when we observe social interactions among adults. What happens in high school is much more intense, and patterns are that much easier to notice. So it is interesting to reflect on a study by sociologists from the University of California at Davis, published in February 2011 in the American Sociological Review.

This is a research on bullying in high school. While the it confirms the existence of the archetypal “bully” and “victim” roles, it also finds that this type of bullying represents only a small fraction of all the bullying that is going on in high school. In fact, there is much more bullying among some of the apparently best adjusted kids. I quote, below, from the study’s abstract of findings:

“Literature on aggression often suggests that individual deficiencies, such as social incompetence, psychological difficulties, or troublesome home environments, are responsible for aggressive behavior. In this article, by contrast, we examine aggression from a social network perspective, arguing that social network centrality, our primary measure of peer status, increases the capacity for aggression and that competition to gain or maintain status motivates its use. (…) We find that aggression is generally not a maladjusted reaction typical of the socially marginal; instead, aggression is intrinsic to status and escalates with increases in peer status until the pinnacle of the social hierarchy is attained. Over time, individuals at the very bottom and those at the very top of a hierarchy become the least aggressive youth.”

In other words, this study puts aggression and bullying within a social context: Jockeying for position among people who have a real shot at gaining status. It doesn’t occur among people who don’t have a shot at being among the successful kids. And it doesn’t occur either at the very top of the heap, among the kids who are acknowledged as most successful.

There is, of course, the chicken-and-egg question: Are the kids who have a shot at being successful already more aggressive by nature, and this is what gives them the possibility of becoming successful? Or are these kids not any more aggressive than the others, but having a shot at being more successful stimulates their aggression? The study does not directly address this issue. However it finds good reasons to believe that the lack of aggression and bullying among the kids who are at the very top of the heap is not due to their innate temperament, but to their social position.

In any case, the study emphasizes that being a contender, and jockeying for position, puts you in a position where you are going to be subjected to other people’s aggression and bullying, and you’re going to be stimulated to resort to your own aggression and bullying.

Fast forward now to adult life. It is intriguing to consider the various work contexts in which we interact with others as something that resembles what happens within the various cliques of high school. There are some archetypal “bullies” and “victims”, there are a few secure people at the very top of the heap, and the vast majority of people fall within either the category of “contenders” who have a shot at improving their relative position, and people who are not. Among the people who are jockeying for position, there’s going to be a lot of pressure in the form of aggression and bullying, being the recipient of it, as well as doing it to others.

As you read this, you probably feel that this is not earth-shattering news. And, of course, it isn’t. The reason I am restating this here is to point out something that many people forget: Being a successful professional is not just about your professional skills or experience. It also has to do with how you deal with aggression, on the receiving end as well as on the giving end of it.

It is about how you can sustain the aggression that will inevitably be targeted at you without it getting to you though your emotional fault lines. And it is about how you can channel your own aggression, as you need to do, in a way that is both effective and respectful of your own integrity. In other words, it is how you can aim for not just survival in a war zone, but actually enjoy a sustainable life.

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