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The Dark Side of Achievement and 7 Ways To Avoid It.

For some people “slaying” in life actually means they’re slaying, aka killing, themselves! I know because I fell under this category.

A few years ago I found myself in burnout, overwhelmed by life, with a recent diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, crying on my way to work everyday.

From the outside looking in, I had my shit together. I had a beautiful home, a wonderful husband, I was a successful hairstylist, earning a great income, travelled across North America working as a facilitator for a global haircare brand, I had won awards, worked onstage and backstage at major events, been published in beauty magazines, life looked great!

…but inside, I was crumbling.

I believed that, with the accolades, would come the feeling of self worth, that I would gain confidence and self respect. What really happened was, the higher I climbed on the “success ladder”, the more of an imposter I felt like and every new challenge felt more like a pressure test than the natural next step it was meant to be.

I would feel successful and therefore ”happy” after each event but it would be short lived because, deep down, I knew that I didn’t deserve it. Someone else was always better than me, more deserving, and it was only a matter of time before everyone would know it.

Along with that, I felt disappointed in my inability to say no and with every yes, I disrespected myself.

It was an unstable foundation to build confidence on because it was always dependant on what others believed about me and I knew it was only a matter of time before they would know that I was a fraud.

With all of that self-doubt, insecurity and dread, it’s no wonder I found myself in my doctors office, crying uncontrollably and being prescribed medication! And now I could add the feeling of shame to the mix for having a diagnosis of mental illness.

That was my emotional “rock-bottom”. My addiction to achieving had finally reached it’s limit.

It’s been over three years since then, one of the darkest times of my life, and what’s great about hitting bottom is there’s no where to go but up!

I was forced to step back and take a look at my life and do the deep dive into how I had found myself in this predicament, with a long list of accolades and a short stack of self-worth.

After years of reflection, I have learned some invaluable lessons and I will share them in the hopes that I can save even one overachiever from the same fate...

Lesson #1: Lower my expectations. One of the reasons I found myself disappointed by my achievements and, therefore in burnout, is because I had unrealistic expectations of how good I would feel about myself by accomplishing them and I thought that it would bring me lifelong happiness. As a result, I found myself always chasing the next goal expecting this outcome which, in turn, caused me to constantly be living for the future and never enjoying the moment. I constantly felt let down by my inability to be happy with life, and myself, as it was. I now recognize that in order to feel confident and fulfilled, I needed to embrace every moment as it is, take the highs with the lows, and recognize that no feeling is meant to last forever, not happiness and not confidence. Emotions are like the weather, they come and go and that’s a beautiful part of life.

Lesson #2: Be Authentic. I’ve always resonated with people pleasing but I had no idea how deep it was imbedded in my behaviour, nor how damaging it was to my self-worth. One of the reasons I kept saying yes to opportunities is because I didn‘t want to disappoint anyone by saying no. Agreeing to take on so much definitely helped me to achieve more, faster, but it was at the expense of my physical and mental health and I found myself feeling like a victim, blaming it on others because “how could they ask me to do that too, they should know how much I have on my plate”. I was becoming resentful and bitter and those closest to me, my husband and family would get the brunt of it because it felt safer to project those emotions on people I knew loved me rather than those I was still trying to earn respect from. This then turned into self loathing because I didn’t like the person I was with my loved ones. Today I recognize those people pleasing tendencies when they appear and I remind myself that saying “no” and being authentic to my own needs is the foundation of respect for myself and others and is how strong relationships are built.

Lesson #3: Be aware of the WHY. Part of the reason my overachieving went sour was because my “why” was misguided. I thought that achievement would make me feel confident but after years of slaying goals and still not feeling worthy, I had to admit defeat. Part of confidence comes from accomplishing but it can’t be what you hang your entire hat on. When it becomes your only proof of worth, what happens when you fail? It feels crushing to your sense of identity, at least that’s what happened to me. By the end, I didn’t need to fail to feel crushed, it was the fear of failure that was causing the most pressure. Confidence is formed in how you take the good with the bad in life, the knowing that you are worthy simply because you were born and, therefore, meant to be here. My “why” now is much different, whatever I do, it because I want my 90 year old a self to be proud of me and I use this to direct me in making all of my decisions…not my need to be seen as successful and, as a result, worthy.

Lesson #4: Stay true to my values. Another reason I didn’t feel fulfilled during that time came from my ignoring my inner guidance system. I didn‘t pay attention to what actions and behaviours felt good to me and what felt right, I was more interested in what others liked to see from me. It was from this ignorance of my highest self that I began to mistrust myself. The word “confidence” comes from the root word “confide“ which means “to trust“ and I had little evidence of how I could trust myself. In order to gain faith in myself, I had to uncover what my core values were and to start living by them day to day. The added benefit is that these values also help in making any big decisions, if the path does not follow them then it’s an easy “no”.

Lesson #5: Own what I know…and what I don’t. A pattern of mine that has caused me a lot of grief has been the need to be right and the need to “know it all” (Or in the very least, the inability to admit that I didn’t). This is something that developed in elementary school with being a “bright” student. I became so identified with that role that I became afraid to be seen as anything but. Fast forward to adulthood and now you have a woman with low self esteem who is afraid to let her guard down, admit when she’s wrong and needs to be “best in class”. When you combine this with the people pleasing pattern of the need to be liked, you get an utter mess. Who likes a know-it-all who can’t be wrong? This has been the most recent discovery of mine as I sorted through the debris of my internal combustion and it has also been the hardest to admit (the irony is not lost on me). Because it has been a pattern for so long, I still work on this everyday and it’s been the most freeing. Acknowledging what I know and what I don’t know has helped me to show up authentically which, in turn, has given me the most confidence, it’s helped me to accept myself fully. It has also aided in me staying curious (one of my values) because “knowing it all“ leaves no room for growth. I don’t believe this is an aspect of all overachievers but I thought that there might be a couple of us out there so I hope this lesson is valuable to someone other than myself.

Lesson #6: Find the lesson. I’ve hinted on this above but thought it best to make it explicit. The best way I’ve found to take the sting out of failure and therefore diffusing the fear of it, is to find the lesson it. If you can extract a learning from everything in life then there is no loss, only growth.

Lesson #7: I am worthy, with or without my résumé. This is another one I continually work on. The idea that I must earn my worth runs deep but innately I know that every being on this planet is worthy simply by being itself, by living. To reinforce this I repeat mantras, empowering phrases that when said out loud frequently become the most prominent thought rather than those that are self-deprecating. A great example of a strong mantra that a coaching client of mine recently created is “I have enough, I do enough, I am enough”, try it out for yourself, it’s very powerful at diffusing self-doubt.

My hope is that no one I have the privilege of knowing, ever goes through what I have gone through on my journey of overachieving but if you must, I hope that you also gain valuable lessons from it.

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” Booker T. Washington

With love,

your coach

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