How I Broke Free from My Toxic Need to Achieve

“If it’s out of your hands, it deserves freedom from your mind too.” ~ Ivan Nuru

“Honey, we’re gonna call you an ambulance.”

The woman on the other end of the phone at the hospital call center sounded stern as I lay on my bathroom floor in my robe, writhing in pain, barely able to speak.

I never knew you could hyperventilate from pain, I remember thinking.

It was December, and I’d just returned home from a stressful international work trip with jet lag and exhaustion as my souvenirs. The sensitive, introverted parts of myself I normally shoved under the veneer of Ms. Capable Can-Do-It-All were overstimulated by the constant activity and overwhelmed by interacting with so many coworkers in a city I didn’t know.

During the trip, my cousin called me. They never call me.

“Grandpa died,” they said.

In my grief, I did my best to find last-minute flights back to see family in the US, but I missed my third connection and slept on the airport floor. I’d been pushing myself for months; by the time I finally walked through my apartment door, I was more than fried. I was burnt out. Then I came down with the worst flu of my life.

And now, sudden stomach pains pulsed through my entire body, so intense I had to crawl to my phone to dial the hospital.

As the EMTs arrived at my door, ready to whisk me away in an ambulance like an unglamorous Cinderella, I started being able to breathe again.

Suddenly, I was much more aware of my surroundings. The awkwardness of two men in unfamiliar uniforms strapping me onto a stretcher and carrying me down the narrow stairwell like a cumbersome, delicate piece of furniture, into the back of the ambulance going only a few blocks away when I could usually walk there, was surreal. I felt detached from my life somehow, as if I was witnessing it from the outside.

Right then, the whole situation struck me as, for lack of a better word, funny.

I can’t wait to see what’ll go wrong next! I thought, almost laughing.

As I sat quietly in my hospital bed with an IV in my arm and my pain finally eased, I realized something.

In this moment, there was nothing I could do about my health. Whatever diagnosis the doctor was going to walk in and give me, I couldn’t change it.

All I could do was be present. And I found that incredibly…freeing.

I’d spent the better part of three years burnt out, mostly miserable, and continuing to push through, no matter how exhausted I was, or how much everything in my body and the back of my mind was telling me to STOP.

However, I didn’t listen. I was too focused on succeeding in my dream job, the job I’d worked myself to the bone for years to land. I was damned if I’d let something as silly as my body get in the way of my dreams.

But right then, in my blue-and-white-striped hospital gown, I had a gut thud of knowing that things had to change.

I needed to let go. Of the dream that wasn’t really mine anymore. Of holding on so tight to what I knew that I wasn’t letting myself breathe or acknowledge what was true for me.

I needed to let go of the idea that I could force myself into happiness by achieving more. It wasn’t working. I just felt empty.

I needed to start trusting myself more. Not the loud inner dictator part of me who constantly scolded me for not working hard enough—I’d been trusting that part too much already. No, I needed to start trusting that gentle voice inside that whispered, “Hey, take a break…it’s okay to rest. It’s okay to just let yourself be.”

I also realized I needed to start taking up more space in my life instead of giving it all away to work and other people. I wanted to live in a way that brought out my softer, more compassionate, more authentic self, not just the tough, competent leader part of me who fulfilled everyone else’s expectations first. I wanted to figure out how to be who I actually was, not just who I thought I should be.

Because that part was so, so tired. Frankly, she needed to lie down and take a nap. And figure out who she was when she wasn’t performing.

So ultimately, that’s what I did.

(Yes, the nap. But also the figuring out.)

Maybe you know what I mean. Maybe you’re at a crossroads where you don’t know where to go next, you just know it’s not where you are. Maybe you feel torn between your ambitious side and the part of you that knows that how you feel on the inside is more important than how your life looks on the outside.

If so, here are a few things that helped me, and might help you, too.

1. Embrace the pause.

When you spend your whole life being rewarded for ignoring your body’s signals and pushing through for work, it can feel like sacrilege to give yourself a moment to rest. Do it anyway.

Lie on your bed, breathe, and stare at the ceiling for five minutes. Commit to doing absolutely nothing, no matter how strong your urge is to be productive. And then do it again. Work can wait—your well-being is worth it. And ultimately, the more you include yourself and your needs in what you do, the more successful and productive you’ll be, even if it takes a little longer to get there.

2. Listen to your inner nurturer.

See what happens when you tune in to your inner world, and if you can hear the gentle voice inside that whispers, “Take a break; it’s okay to rest.” It might not be there right away; that’s okay. Being kind to ourselves is a practice, and it can take time to develop.

How can you tell the difference between your inner dictator and your inner nurturer? The dictator, when you listen long enough from the place of mindful observation, usually starts to sound like your parent or teacher or middle-school volleyball coach. Your inner nurturer sounds like you, or if you grew up in the eighties, maybe like the Empress from The Neverending Story.

You’ll know the difference because when you hear the first one, your body will tense up; when you hear the second one, your body will relax.

3. Get curious about your self-worth.

Sometimes as kids, we learn that we have to earn love and approval by working really hard, being responsible, or being good. When we grow up, this can translate beautifully to the working world, because there’s always a new way to improve, something else to do, or someone else to impress.

But what if your sense of confidence didn’t depend on being the best, the most responsible, or the hardest worker? Take a moment and sit with the question: Who could I be if I felt loved and accepted just as I am, even when I’m relaxing and doing nothing? Even when I’m mediocre at something? Even when I’m just being? 

Bring some curiosity, with as little judgment as you can muster, to when you feel most “worthy.” If it’s usually when you’re doing something for someone else, or in achieving mode, I invite you to see if you can expand your sense of worthiness to when you’re not doing anything at all. Or even, gasp, when you make a mistake. It can be a long road to finding peace and feeling worthy of love and connection just as you are, but in my experience, it’s worth it.

4. Redefine success on your terms.

Challenge the conventional definitions of success that may have guided your life so far. You can even journal about it: what does success actually look like for you based on your values, passions, and commitment to personal growth?

True fulfillment comes not from meeting external expectations but from aligning your achievements with your authentic self. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

We often get caught up in the pursuit of success, attached to goals that might have lost their relevance along the way. Just like I did. It’s easy to ignore the signs when our bodies are screaming for a pause, a moment of relief. But, as cliché as it might sound, life is pretty short, and it’s not worth it to sacrifice our well-being on the altar of ambition.

So allow yourself the freedom to reassess your dreams when you need to, and adjust how you’re spending your time and energy at this stage in your life. See what it might be like to let go just a little bit; to trust that it’s okay to change, to evolve, and to prioritize your health and happiness over what others expect of you, or even what you used to expect from yourself.

See if, in moments of overwhelm or uncertainty, you can take a breath, tune in to your body, and listen to your deepest knowing, trusting that the path you walk in every moment can be fulfilling in and of itself.

Because isn’t that what life is all about?

About Caitlin Clarke

Caitlin Clarke is a mindfulness-based somatic life and career coach for highly sensitive, ambitious women who want to trust themselves more and take up space in their own lives. Sign up for her free newsletter with tips for saying buh-bye to burnout and staying true to you at her website, www.caitlinclarke.com.

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