May 7, 2013

Letting Go of an Achievement Mentality


I was talking with a friend the other day, and over the course of our conversation I came to realize that most of my current personal struggles might actually stem from my achievement mentality. If I was going to get really "therapist-y" on you (which I kind of am in this post), I would say that my self-worth has become wrapped-up in my accomplishments, both big and small. (Read: reaching a high level in my career (big) or crossing things off my daily to-do list (small).)

That would be like saying, you are not necessarily inherently good, but only as good as your last accomplishment. You ran a marathon? Wow, that's impressive. You're a VP with the company? You must be smart. You got all of that done in one day and cooked dinner from scratch? Whoa, you sure are earning your keep.

Which begs the question: Am I still worthy and lovable if I don't do all of this stuff? And, who the heck am I trying to impress or convince anyway? I'm pretty sure my friends and family don't give a crap. (I have to say, I think it's kind of sick that I get a surge of worthiness, a mental pat on the back, every time I cross something- however minute and meaningless- off my to-do list. Yeah, my lists mean that things rarely fall through the cracks-- I AM on top of things! But at what cost? And who really cares? Will I care, on my deathbed, that I was always on top of things? Kind of doubt it.)

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this surface-y value, which is driving my behavior on a day-to-day basis, has skewed so much over the years that it no longer actually lines up with my true, internal values. Striving to always do my best has become something else entirely.

Here's an example: I just read an article by Martha Beck in last month's Oprah magazine that rang true to me-- another epiphany, if you will. In it, she described a friend who held herself to such high standards that everyone else felt judged in her presence despite the fact that she never actually judged them. The woman's friends were unconsciously reflecting her own self-judgement. This story brought back a memory of a long-past conversation with my own friend who told me something about herself but then confessed that she was worried I would judge her for it. Of course, I never would. But her fear of this may have stemmed from reflecting my self-judgement and the crazy-high standards I often hold myself to. (Why are we always so much nicer to and more understanding of our friends than we are to and of ourselves?)

Now, in many ways, my problems are "good problems" or "functional problems." My controlling, achievement-seeking, high standards have pulled me through a pretty great life. I have had a successful career, a wonderful marriage, amazing children, friends and family I love with all my heart, and even some experiences that I wouldn't have otherwise had (like running a marathon and going skydiving). I live a charmed life. But as good as it is, I think it could be better.

As we grow and evolve over time, I think we learn and improve in certain areas of life, then move on to work on other areas. And skills that served us for one phase of life may become a hindrance in the next phase. So what served me in my twenties and thirties may need to be set aside and a new way of being put in place. Or maybe not so new...maybe, in fact, it's a return to who I was before I made myself an adult, sometime during college. I mean, I AM an adult now, no matter what I do (damn you 39!). So maybe I don't need to prove it anymore. Maybe I don't have to prove anything anymore.

What I can see now is that my current driving force presents two big problems for me: 1) I am not living entirely the way I want to live, and 2) I am, consequently, not being the role model I want to be for my children.  When I think about what I want for my children as they grow and develop their own lives, I can see clearly that I am not always modeling what I want them to value (i.e. I don't want them to be perfectionists!). I know they will chart their own courses, but I also know that what they learn from me and my husband will lay the foundation. What's the quote I recently saw on Pinterest?

Your children will become who you are, so be who you want them to be.

Yes. That is what I mean.

So, it seems a good idea to change. But how? I have been driven by to-do lists and accomplishments, by work-before-play, for so long that I'm not quite sure how not to be. And I have a fear of things not getting done if I let go. What if everything goes to hell-in-a-hand-basket? My fears of letting go of control and failure have ruled for so long...what will it be like? I don't know.

But I think it may be time to find out.

So, now what? My friend told me that she didn't have the answer but that I should just think on it. (Apparently providing a checklist for something like this sort of defeats the purpose.) So that's what I've been doing. Thinking. And exploring. And wouldn't you know that the universe keeps giving me gifts to help me along the way. And I've begun to feel a lightness that I haven't felt in a while.

For now I will simply say, "More to come." There will be much more to come on this topic.

Until next time, go accomplish nothing for a little while.


(And maybe check out the little picture book my friend loaned me: The Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell. It is all kinds of cuteness.)

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