What happened when I spent the last three months living up to…no one.
Nature and nurture both conspired to bless me with a super dose of type-Aness.
Rough translation: I have high expectations to live up to in order to feel okay. A self-induced state of not-enoughness that blends together my own ambitions, the social pressures that stick right under consciousness, and the many expectations of family, work, and parenthood.
I have been making massive lists and checking them off since I hit puberty, staving off the deep insecurities that feed off external gratification. “More! More!”
I’m not alone. There’s a whole Matrix-style bay of hedonic treadmills on either side of me – all of us pounding away on an endless trail on video loop.
Over the past four years, I’ve been trying to take the red pill as often as possible, to step off the treadmill and find contentment. I’ve genuinely found greater happiness and joy…at points. But I was still driven by this emptiness inside that needed to be fed all the time. This senseless need to do more, be more, have more.
And then I burned out last year.
To be clear: I was on fire for a long time, and not in a good way. More like I was slowly charring into a unrecognizable, cancer-inducing black crust of a person.
Chronic fight-or-flight syndrome. Our minds and bodies aren’t designed to withstand the fires of inflammation day-in and day-out.
My amygdala waving the distress flag for years on end, triggering the hypothalamus to gas the sympathetic nervous system so that my adrenal glands pumped out an endless supply of adrenaline. Glucose dumping into my blood to supply the energy needed for the fight.
And as the fight drags on and on, the HPA-axis trio pumping out corticotropin-releasing hormone to release a steady drip of cortisol. Cortisol boosting a bottomless appetite in order to replace the emergency reserves that are constantly being depleted.
It’s not all that surprising that I have two autoimmune diseases, including Type 1 diabetes.
If I continued on that treadmill, it also wouldn’t be surprising when heart disease set in.
“We overload, our heads start pounding for attention, our hearts get attacked for our lack of intimacy, and our vessels cause the doctor’s mercury gauge to warn us that things are getting too high. Even our bowels can get irritated with us and show their displeasure in their own unique language. Somewhere in our bodies…something is burning out.”
– Paul Pearsall, Psychologist & Author, Super Immunity
Lesson: Just knowing something doesn’t mean jack.
I’ve been studying mind-body medicine since grad school in 2006. I also (obviously) recognize the power of good therapy, but waited until last summer to return.
It took a few more months to let go of the public persona and start accepting myself just as I am. To begin to accept this moment just as it is.
I fought it every step of the way.
I put a LOT of miles on that treadmill to get to Level 1,308. Stepping off felt like giving up. Quitting. Failing. Starting over.
But there’s was also this tiny spot of light that looked a whole lot like relief. And I was finally so burnt out that any relief was worth the rest going up in flames.
As of January 1st, I threw out all the plans.
The timing was not the new year, or at least not consciously. Such dates are powerful motivators to make a change, but the conscious impetus was surrendering to a full-time therapy role where paychecks just appear every two weeks.
Which initially meant: Fear. Loss of control. Loss of time. Loss of freedom.
But turned out to mean: No marketing. No social media. No pressure. Freedom.
I deleted all of my to do lists (there are many). I threw out all of the brainstormed strategies and goals for curating a specific future (several notebooks, journals and giant post-it sheets). I tossed all expectations of me – especially my own.
I accepted that what truly mattered to me would rise back to the surface.
The result was glorious.
I simply move from moment to moment, being the most basic version of myself.
I steep in the love and curiosity of my children. I do nothing else but be with them fully when we are together. Guilt-free. No compromises or sacrifices.
I cook and bake to savor (not just eat). Life became marked by flavor again.
Salami with whole-grain mustard, aged white cheddar, and spicy-sweet pickles.
Garden fresh cherry tomatoes with cottage cheese, sprinkled with pepper and sea salt flakes.
Lemon sour cream cupcakes. Flaxseed cinnabread. Crunchy homemade chocolate granola paired with the bittersweetness of plain Greek yogurt…I digress.
I move for joy rather than obligation. I ran at any pace, for any distance. I closed my eyes in yoga and felt instead of performed. I started hiking again.
I pour the best of myself into meaningful work. Enjoying every minute of my client sessions. Leading meditation groups. Teaching yoga.
I loved being self-employed for six years, but I must say: This work is VERY different when it’s pure. When it’s simply the real person-to-person connection. When you remove the administrative nightmare of branding and organizing and selling, there’s a hell of a lot more room for joy and meaning.
90 days of my expectations detox later…
1. I feel profoundly content. And in that experience, I recognize that I’ve never felt contentment for more than a few minutes in my entire life. It was always colored by the waiting list of more. Always hungry. My self had no bottom. All the work and all of the reward fell right through, and the emptiness would return to drive me forward to the next hit.
2. I am crystal clear on what actually matters to me. I don’t need to publish a book, host a summer retreat series, make more money, cover up my grays, or otherwise prove myself to anyone, especially not myself. I am perfectly happy being a good person, a great mother, and a wholehearted loved one to my family and friends.
3. I am humble about the siren song of the treadmill. I know that I need to be vigilant of my precious contentment and wary of ambition. That doesn’t mean I won’t seek out or say yes to big challenges and opportunities. In fact, it ensures that I am selective in my pursuits, protective of my real priorities, and have the bandwidth to give myself over to that which fills up my soul, rather than pouring right through and down the drain.
A colleague recently shared German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s perspective on life:
“Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring… its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart…
The enchantment of distance shows us paradises which vanish like optical illusions when we have allowed ourselves to be mocked by them. Happiness accordingly always lies in the future, or else in the past, and the present may be compared to a small dark cloud which the wind drives over the sunny plain: before and behind it all is bright, only it itself always casts a shadow.
The present is therefore always insufficient; but the future is uncertain, and the past irrevocable. Life with its hourly, daily, weekly, yearly, little, greater, and great misfortunes, with its deluded hopes and its accidents destroying all our calculations, bears so distinctly the impression of something with which we must become disgusted, that it is hard to conceive how one has been able to mistake this and allow oneself to be persuaded that life is there in order to be happy.
Rather that continual illusion and disillusion, and also the nature of life throughout, presents itself to us as intended and calculated to awaken the conviction that nothing at all is worth our striving, our efforts and struggles, that all good things are vanity, the world in all its ends bankrupt, and life a business which does not cover its expenses.”
To which, I suggested that the man was in the throes of clinical depression.
I have never experienced so much continual bliss and absence of sadness, frustration or anger, as I have over the past three months.
And, yet, I have still pursued worthy endeavors.
I cared for two brilliant, budding children. I served my therapy clients with all my heart, knowledge and talents. I taught a beautiful group of therapists about the art of helping, and empowered them to surrender to their own work. I shared my passion for the practice of resilience with an audience of 100+ helping professionals who have dedicated themselves to supporting victims of sexual violence.
Perhaps when we find stillness and joy in the absence of striving, the cloud continues on and we finally stand in the warm glow of the sun.