“You don’t always have to be busy. You can relax sometimes.” my long-time partner says jokingly, as he nudges me in the side gently. Cracking a smile, I nod a bit and keep typing so I can finish a Fellowship application and the 500 other task-oriented items I have placed on my to-do list today. I only partially acknowledge his statement because I know he is right, just like my therapist, my friends, and anyone else who knows me – those that really know me. They are all right, I have only just begun to listen.
I have always been an overachiever, even through a debilitating illness. See how I pointed that out? Without even trying to overachieve, I am still trying to point out my overachievement – even in this article. Don’t judge – It’s a cycle that is hard to break. That is why we are here today dear friends.
Yes, people who have this trait are often Type A Personalities. Type A individuals tend to be very competitive and self-critical. They strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments. They are often very successful as well as overworked, stressed, and rarely sit still. This being all too familiar, I felt it was time to write this article as a way for self-reflection, face accountability and perhaps connect with others who are driving a similar bus down a long road of high expectation where goals can become an endless black hole of continuous self-judgment.
If you are on the bus, I don’t know about you, but I know where it all started for me. My goal-oriented overachieving personality was perpetrated by a family system that lacked stability or any real support. Not only was there very challenging and brutal aspects of my childhood, I was also a latchkey kid that grew up in the ’80s where you basically raised yourself riding bikes with no helmets, eating Hot Pockets, drinking aspartame laced drinks like Capri Sun, swimming in polluted waters and watching Smurfs or After School Specials. Alone. Completely alone.
As I write this, I ponder the fact that I still feel like I am learning how to parent myself, yet, for some reason as a kid I had less supervision than I do now. How did I make it until now? And then another piece of the puzzle immerges…. is this why I have some strange illness? I digress.
Overall, when you raise yourself and spend a lot of time having to self-nurture, self-regulate, avoid the boogeyman, and do basic things like feed yourself or drive your drunk uncle to the Party Store you grow up pretty quick. There is nothing wrong with that. I like to be self-sufficient and not afraid of the dark. However, a lot of adults from this generation are self-motivated overachievers with mommy or daddy issues. Often looking for ways to achieve so we can be seen because no one saw us. Did we even exist?
I also don’t want to forget the underachievers from this generation. I have so much respect for them. In many ways, they learned to go with the flow, not place heavy expectations on themselves, and clearly do not have the kind of dark-circles I have under my eyes. Cheers to them!
Not only did my upbringing present the perfect storm for my slight personality defect, along came a long time illness that spanned almost 2 decades of my life, limiting what I could and could not do that mirrors what people who are experiencing a world of Covid now do. I barely left my house, I wore a mask 15 years before they were cool and my world was limited. On days I felt good which was 10% of the time, I pushed so hard that by the time that 90% of bad showed up it was really bad. I created this see-saw effect which did not help my illness.
Furthermore, over the years I was told what was happening in my body was all in my head so I pushed even harder and punished myself for being sick. I constantly felt like a failure, I would start projects I could not finish, take on too much because I wanted so bad to be normal but many things crumbled because I kept getting too sick. Since I was told there was nothing wrong with me, I felt the illness to myself. I never just let myself be me and I never accepted I was a sick person. When I was forced into resting for years on end the guilt became thicker and thicker.
Why was I not achieving? I was worthless.
As I sit here today, right now, I am not worthless but what I do know is that the value of who we are is not based on our achievements. Over those years I have accomplished some pretty remarkable things for a sick girl, but what does any of it really mean? Nothing. No one cares but me, and what I care about is how I can connect, help and affect people to have a better life, not my resume. Achievements and goals are great but what matters is much deeper and poetic than that is the lesson many of us learn when faced with death, illness or extreme challenges in life.
When talking to my therapist today, he asked me “What does rest look like to me?” and the only thing I could think to say is “sleep”. We talked for a very long time about resting, replenishing, and refilling one’s cup beyond our basic need of sleep. And in my life, my biggest goal is to help others and if my cup is always empty, how can I show up?
Keeping busy is wonderful, but it can also be a way to run and hide from the things we need to face. It can be used as a defense mechanism for survival and I choose not to be in survival mode anymore. I will leave you with this quote, a mantra for overachieving souls.
“Rest make you stronger. Doing is great, but rest makes you stronger.”
It sounded like an oxymoron to this overachiever, but I feel it in my bones that it is not. So I ask you to please take the time to rest. It is okay to stop, to say no, and to remain still. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable in that stillness and release in that stillness is the key to wellness.