I’ve spent a significant part of my life working way too much. Often, I found myself glued to a computer screen, displaying obvious irritation when one of my two children would interrupt and ask me a question. “Mom, can you find my hairbrush?” In my finer moments, I would turn towards her, make eye contact, and respond sweetly for the umpteenth time “it’s upstairs, baby.” Maybe, if she was lucky, I even threw a heartfelt smile her way. However, more often the case, my gaze remained steely and firmly locked on the doom device in front of me. Angrily, I would respond, “can’t you see I am on the computer?”
I’ve known for a very long time that I’m addicted to achievement, overworking, and caring way too much. I used to wonder if I would ever evolve into a self-composed type of woman who easily blocks an entire 24-hour period in her calendar? A Mother who carefully curates her children’s lunches and eagerly signs up to volunteer for her daughter’s field trips? Is there a reason why the mere thought of doing nothing takes enormous focus and discipline? Why is it that I would much rather work than blow a gym whistle and ask pre-pubescent kids to create a straight-line formation?
The cold, hard truth is that escorting my kids on a school trip never gave me the same dopamine hit that career validation does. I was obsessed with achievement and success. It’s a high, no different than the Amazon package delivery high. Whenever I attempt to ‘do less’, even now, I end up feeling slightly bereft, a little lost, and immediately scan the environment for things to do. I will pick up a broom, organize my kids sock drawer, anything that keeps me moving, or more aptly, prevents me from being still.
Let’s face it. Overachievement is lauded, rewarded even, in our production-oriented society. Languishing, going with the flow, taking things slowly is admired from afar. Slowing down doesn’t have the same sexy allure that being a ‘hard worker’ does. Despite all the well-meaning attempts by the self-help industry to normalize ‘slowing down’ and warn us about the dangers of hustle culture, my DNA is still wired to do. I tried going slow. If you were to walk into my office today, you’ll see a bookshelf teeming with self-help books on topics ranging from mindfulness to cloning myself. It looks like a medicine cabinet for the elderly. Much like a pill for every physical ailment, I have a how-to book for every emotional, psychological, and mental ailment that you could possibly think of. Skip Indigo. Just come on over to my house.
Well-intentioned people have tried to encourage me over the years to “take it easy”. They would say, “Teresa, don’t work so hard”, to no avail. But the worst thing I heard was the deathbed analogy. “Teresa, when you are on your deathbed, do you think anyone is going to remember how hard you worked”. Yes, damn it, I do. Seriously. I ‘knew’ that overworking was dangerous. I was fully aware of the side effects, such as burnout, stress, anxiety, poor nutrition, etc. But ask any addict why she takes that first drink when she knows the consequences and it’s highly likely she will respond with “I don’t know why”. The craving, that insatiable urge inhabits your entire being. Just because I knew better didn’t mean I did better.
Others called it workaholism; I called it high achievement. I was rewarded generously for that badge of honour. Promotions, pay raises, public praise, a feeling of self-importance. I can still feel the adrenalin rush whenever I received accolades for a job well done. For a hot second, I actually felt like my work mattered, that I mattered.
Truly, I didn’t know how to stop working. Only after experiencing a severe and debilitating depression in my 30’s, did I even start to question my logic. That was the defining moment – the crucible experience – that changed everything. Anyone who has ever experienced a depression knows what I’m talking about. There is life before a depression and then there is life after depression. My mind was enveloped in a 24-hour brain fog, permanently mangled with anxious thoughts. My body was riddled with lethargy, despondency, and dread. In those moments, the only thing I desired was bloody relief. It was only then that I was forced to examine why I was so addicted to achievement.
That depressive episode lasted close to 2 years and ended up becoming the catalyst to a changed life. Throughout that 2-year journey, I finally figured it out. I figured me out. I discovered why I was always running so fast, so hard, why everything was a sprint to the finish line. I buried myself in overworking, busyness, and pleasing others at the expense of my personal wellbeing. Then, I was asked the key question that led to my transformation.
Am I moving away from pain or am I moving toward something good?
In the throes of my workaholism, I was always running away from pain. I realize now that overachievement gave me the perfect excuse to escape from the pain of knowing intellectually, I was loved, but I never actually felt loved. I was running away from the punishing voice in my head. The voice that constantly asked questions like “what will he think? What if this goes wrong?” I ran away from a traumatic past that I very purposely and carefully placed into a tightly sealed vacuum-packed container. I ran away from facing myself.
Slowly and gently, I started to become clear on what I wanted to move toward instead. After years of hiding in excel spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations, I began to work less. I stopped caring too much about pleasing others and started to ask myself the fundamental question, “Is this really what I want?” It turns out that the annoying deathbed question made a lot of sense. Would people really care that I was a c-level executive working for an international billion-dollar organization? I don’t think so.
My slow ascent from depression became pivotal, transcendent even. Through a series of fits and starts, I became crystal clear about what I was moving toward. Instead of running away from my needs, I started to walk towards what I desire. I walked towards bear hugs and sloppy kisses, morning coffee and croissants, arm wrestles and movie nights. My ‘toward’ state today includes non-fiction books, social-media free Sundays, and hour-long yoga classes. Today, I continue to move toward clear boundaries, and have extremely healthy guardrails around my career. Eventually, I moved away from my executive position and toward a thriving business as an executive coach for women just like me.
I figured out how to be successful. My hyper-achievement came down to running away from intimately knowing who I am. Only after a significant personal reckoning did I end the vicious cycle of toxic and addictive workaholism.
I finally found success.