“I don’t know how you do it” is a phrase I’ve become quite accustomed to hearing the last few years. It’s usually brushed off with a giggle and the excuse of ‘lots of coffee and not much sleep’. The truth is sometimes I don’t know how I’ve done it either, and that’s not boasting or a humblebrag but more a testament to the occasional state of my mental health, that sometimes I’m not sure how I’ve held it together when the to-do list seems unattainably huge.
I had always been an “overachiever”, whatever that term really means; a ‘gifted and talented’ student since childhood, Head Girl at secondary school, a person who likes everything just so and always has a plan A through to E just in case. That doesn’t sound all that bad, huh? Not until I realised that the reason I wanted these things wasn’t for personal achievement, but that I had an addiction to external validation. This is the reason that overachieving is so paradoxical, you spend your time being absolutely selfish and working on yourself to all appearances, only to be extremely sensitive to the desire to please those around you, to impress them. Like any addiction, you build up a tolerance, in this case to praise. Therefore, each goal that you reach doesn’t satisfy anymore, and builds up to something better next time, ultimately becoming unachievable. In short, you set yourself up for a fall.
This addiction to the validation of others is dangerous in itself for the reason that it masquerades so successfully at being about personal development and achieving your own targets. But it becomes even worse, because this emotional pattern is effectively self-defeating, owing to the fact you lose an authentic sense of self in favour of reaching the dizzy heights that you think others expect of you. It becomes a situation in which your self worth is defined by your successes and how they are perceived by others.
The result of this is that you never end up totally satisfied; even when you hit a big milestone you can’t stop to enjoy it and savour your achievements. Instead youíre thinking about how you could have done better, picking apart the scene thread by thread and immediately setting the next ambitious goal. Plans start to fall into place instantaneously because the ‘next’ accomplishment – (and trust me, itís the real thing this time, it always is!) – will be the one that finally makes you feel good about yourself, the one that means youíve made it, you can relax after this one and take a break.
As it turns out, I had become addicted to being busy, which resulted in an overwhelming feeling of guilt when I wasn’t doing something I deemed productive and worthwhile. Guilt both to others who I felt expected something of me, but also to myself as I felt I was cheating myself out of being the best I could be: ‘you’re better than this’ was the mantra I’d cruelly tell myself over and over if I hadn’t finished what I’d wanted to that day.
It would be a lie if I said I had stopped caring about achieving, but the eventual burnout that inevitably affects Type-A, perfectionist, workaholic people made me stop in my tracks, I had hit a brick wall and I’d hit it hard. It wasn’t through choice that I came to a standstill, but through physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. I wanted to carry on but my body was saying no, it wasn’t letting me, there wasn’t any energy left to give.
Shockingly, the world didn’t implode as I expected it to. I begrudgingly slowed down and I was forced to set smaller goals. I weaned myself off the addiction I had to external validation and being crazy-busy and focussed on balancing doing what made me feel good with what I felt was necessary. On a friend’s recommendation I read Eckhart Tolle’s ‘The Power of Now’ over the summer and took from it a passage;
‘There is nothing wrong with striving to improve your life situation… Your life situation consists of your circumstances and your experiences. There is nothing wrong with setting goals and striving to achieve things. The mistake lies in using it as a substitute for the feeling of life, of Being. The only point of access for that is the Now’.
Very slowly, gradually, and with a lot of resentment and regret I came to realise I was wasting the now. Then, seemingly all at once it clicked into place, as if a light had been turned on in a pitch black room, that you don’t have to kill yourself to prove yourself, and the only one you need to prove yourself to is you.