top of page

Toxic Success: The Dark Side of Boundless Ambition

Watching someone you care about participate in a toxic relationship can be tough. They’re unsupported, demeaned, misunderstood, and taken for granted. Yet, they toil away in a partnership that is anything but.

From the outside looking in, you wonder why they’re investing in a relationship that doesn’t serve them. Why are they sacrificing so much? Why are they wasting their time? Why are they allowing this negative force to take over their life?

You can clearly see that person needs to make a change.

Except, most of us are guilty of allowing toxicity to rule our lives in one way or another. The problem might not be in a relationship—maybe a habit or a substance or even a job. The point is, taking anything to the extreme leaves you vulnerable to toxicity.

What is toxic success?

Yes, even success can be toxic. We all want to be successful in our own way, but what are you willing to do to get what you want? Abandon important relationships? Neglect your well-being? Overlook your family? Ignore your basic needs? Postpone living life?

When you take this perspective of achievement, no amount of success is worth losing who you are and who you care about. All too often, though, what I described above is precisely what happens when we aim for success above all else.

Big goals are important, but the way you go after them really matters. Far too many of us misalign our priorities and ruthlessly pursue success at all costs.

Putting success above all else can be motivating in the short term. In practice, this kind of toxic success doesn’t allow you to enjoy what you accomplish on the road to realizing your dreams.

Blindness by the shine of success

Setting aspirational goals is essential because ambitions aren’t realized overnight. They require persistent, measured effort. As you’re on the journey to achieving your goal, recognizing and celebrating the milestones is important.

When you chase success above all else, you can’t enjoy the journey of accomplishment. The small victories on the path to success simply don’t satisfy. You’re blinded by the light of your ultimate goal.

Vera Wang said, “​​Success isn’t about the end result, it’s about what you learn along the way.” She’s absolutely right. Reaching the finish line is great, but what is it worth if you destroy your relationships and your soul to get there?

What you stand to lose

You don’t need a doctorate in psychology to predict that constantly pursuing a goal makes giving attention to the other parts of your life difficult. You can become so obsessed that the rest of your life withers and dies.

In the end, you lose what’s important.

Toxic success damages relationships, degrades health, and diminishes happiness. When you’re laser-focused on a specific achievement, you simply can’t become distracted by anything else, so it gets left behind.

Let’s say you’re a middle manager at a large company, and you’ll do whatever it takes to become a C-suite executive. You work hard, and eventually reach your goal, but there’s a catch.

Along the way, you neglected your relationships outside of work. Now, even when you want to enjoy your success with friends or loved ones, the celebration feels hollow. You suffer from extreme sleep deprivation and struggle to stay present when not at work. You’re less happy than when you were a middle manager, and you turn to emotional eating to cope with your depression. Your schedule leaves you no time to work out, and depression starts overtaking your daily life.

Doesn’t sound so great, does it?

It’s not. Clinical psychologist Paul Pearsall discussed this phenomenon in his 2002 book, Toxic Success. Pearsall reveals that some of the many “successful” people achieve success using unsustainable methods that come at a high cost to their health, wellness, and personal relationships. They may be hyper-successful, but they’re also deeply unhappy.

Non-toxic success

I’ll be the first to admit that working hard to achieve a goal is wonderful and worth celebrating, but not when it destroys your life in the process. Accomplishments are only worthwhile if they enhance your authentic self and increase your happiness.

Healthy relationships, excellent health and well-being, and overall quality of life should also be considered accomplishments. Once achieved, they should be preserved as fiercely as that job title you wanted for so long.

Don’t let the relentless pursuit of success rob you of the ability to recognize what’s truly important. Keep your perspective clear and reach your goals while protecting what really matters.


bottom of page