I’m going to open up and tell you all something I’ve never told anyone before. I’ve never told anyone because I’m guessing it’s a little bit strange. While I imagine other little girls were dreaming of being princesses or travelling to far-off lands, I pictured something a little bit different in my mind.
My fantasy goes a little something like this: I am in a horrific near-death accident, I succumb to a coma, and I wake several weeks later in a hospital surrounded by my family and close friends. The room is full of daisies, cards and brightly-colored helium balloons. What is most memorable about this crazy fantasy is that I feel rested and cared for. I see that I am loved and seen. I hear people telling me that they cherish and value me. Most of all, I feel unburdened and at peace.
Maybe I had this fantasy because I watched too many soap operas. (That could certainly be true). Or maybe I created this fantasy because I was overwhelmed with the pressures of my young life and I just wanted a break.
It’s important to note that there was no shortage of love in my home life when I was growing up. My parents loved me fiercely, and though my brothers and I had squabbles typical of rambunctious and healthy young children, I knew that they would do anything in the world to protect and care for me. I even had a couple good friends, though I certainly wouldn’t characterize myself as the most popular girl on the block. I was always surrounded by love. I simply felt exhausted most of the time.
I was the sort of girl who really, really, really wanted to do everything that was expected of her. I loved school and I earned all A’s. I was very active in dance, piano, Girl Scouts, student council, DARE, the honor society, band, youth group and even a sport or two from time to time. I welcomed the hustle of my life. I enjoyed every opportunity I had to be a star – a standout – a good little girl. I wanted to go to sleepovers and lock-ins and perform Maid Marion in our school’s “Robin Hood” production. I wanted all of it. I wanted to be the best at everything. I craved accolades, praise and “atta girls!”
I was also very, very tired.
From a very early age, I adopted a belief system that the more I did, the better I was. I tied my achievements to my worth. I saw the pride in my parents’ eyes when I brought home my report cards, and I wanted more of it. I beamed with joy when my teachers read my papers aloud to the class, or when my fellow students asked me for help with problems that stumped them. I was never happier than when I was picked for the next level of competitive dance troupes – first Junior company, then Bronze, then Silver, then Gold.
I pushed, charged and fought my way forward in every area of my life. I always wanted to be the best, because I thought that the best little girls got the most love. All that pushing and chasing led me to many achievements, and I was proud of those. It also left me exhausted, depleted, and fantasizing about sinking into a coma.
When I look back at my life now, having the privilege of older eyes, I can see how I created a hurricane of expectations for myself that depleted my spirit. Mistakenly believing that “more” was always better, I hustled myself into a stressful, anxious way of life that became quite debilitating as time went on. The patterns I created intensified as I grew up, leading me to a stressed out, overachieving college experience and a quarter-life crisis that left my head spinning.
The problem with always chasing “more” is that there is simply no balance there. Achieving things is absolutely fine. The problem comes with always thinking that there is more to be done and tying those things to your worth. I did that, and I did that with gusto. I created a life in which I always had to outdo myself, and anything I ever did was never good enough. Maybe that’s why I found myself in my late 30’s wondering, “If I’m doing everything ‘right,’ why don’t I feel good enough?”
Over-achieving, or placing our merit in the things that we do, is just one of the many strategies we humans devise for finding our worth in the world. It’s based on a faulty foundation that simply cannot be sustained for the long haul. As I like to repeat to myself often, we are human beings, not human doings, yet far too often we fall into the trap of doing/achieving/winning/producing/accomplishing as if we will get some sort of award for all of that hard work. What I’ve found is that quite often, the opposite occurs. The harder I have worked in my life, and the more I’ve achieved, the more stressed and uncomfortable I’ve truly felt. I’ve worked myself into such a frenzy that I’ve collapsed under the weight of my own expectations, paralyzed myself with indecision and frozen myself with anxiety. Over-achieving simply hasn’t worked.
There are better ways to live than constantly driving to do more. Balance comes not by putting equal numbers of tasks into different buckets (the “work” and “play” buckets, for example), but by contrasting the energies of hustle and surrender. “Work hard, play harder” doesn’t create peace. “Work smart, let go” works a little bit better for me today.
I can learn from the younger version of myself, the little girl who so desperately wanted a break that she fantasized about slipping into a coma. She has taught me to:
- Enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes after a job well done – and STOP for a while. Just put myself in “park” for a few days! Whatever the accomplishment was – say, an important presentation at work – I simply stop for a day or two afterward before rushing on to the next big thing. Taking time to appreciate the fruits of my labor gives a much-needed moment of calm and a bit of time to flow to the next project.
- Replace my To Do list with a daily intentions. To Do lists are great for marking things off and feeling a sense of satisfaction, but they have a shadow side, too. There is simply no end to the To Do’s! I’ve replaced my To Do lists with a simple practice of setting an intention every morning. I ask myself, “Who do I want to be today? How do I want to show up in the world? What do I want to work on?” Answering these questions gives me direction and grace. It doesn’t tie me to any specific accomplishment, but instead allows my life to flow in the direction it needs to with grace. I find I get more productive work, rather than busy work, done when I set intentions – and I can also allow space for interesting new ideas and projects to stream in. Tying my life to a To Do list simply doesn’t allow space for growth. Intentions open my mind, and also ensure I’m meeting my most important goals.
- Take time every day for silence. Meditation is gaining so much popularity rightly now, and right so – because it works! Carving five minutes a day out to sit quietly with your hands in your lap is manageable and critical, especially given the fast pace of our daily lives. Our minds, our hearts and our souls need time to just be. It is a chance to remember our human-ness and connect to a part of us that gets silenced in the drumbeat of busy-ness.
Remembering the weird coma fantasy I had as a little girl is a great reminder to me that life is about more than just doing. Reaching for excellence is fantastic, but not if it depletes our self-worth and our spirit. I have gratitude for the little girl inside of me, and I want to assure her every day that she is seen, she is loved, and she deserves a little rest. I show that to her by giving my adult self a little break every now and then.