My friend Jill is a consummate achiever. Mother of four, Yale Law School alum, married 30 years to a successful surgeon. She has numerous professional awards and accomplishments, and a book-shelf packed with hard cover volumes that she’s actually read. A pristine leafy home in a quiet New England suburb and a vegetable garden to boot. Over the weekend she showed me her daughter’s five-minute wedding video, an affair flowing with love and beauty. Jill even adores her new son-in-law. Grandbabies on their way.
An enviable life right?
But Jill, even though she’s hit social security age, is plagued by a relentless voice in her head that tells here she’s not good enough. She’s not achieved enough. She’s not at the top of her profession. She still needs to strive. On the one hand you could say, “OK, cool, here’s a lady pushing 70 who is still in the game.” But on the other hand, if you see the anguish in Jill’s face, and hear how loud the “shoulds” in her head are, you’d really hope she’d cut herself some slack.
My writing buddy Mara is here today and when I tell her this story over green tea, she says, “You’re kind of like that too, right Sara? Not the anguish part maybe, but the constant achiever.”
I think on that for a minute and come to a response that rings true for me.
Well yes, I still have a ton of energy and like to get stuff done. I get bored easily and am ready to move on to the next thing. But I don’t have that inner brutal taskmaster telling me I’ve got to keep going till I drop. I’m no longer driven by my dad’s voice inside my head, famous among my siblings too, “Work, work, work, think later.” Lenny was an immigrant’s son who drove himself relentlessly. Drilled it into his kids’ too. Never stop. Be the best. Nice guys finish last. Ahead of Vince Lombardi’s time, his message was “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”
What changed? More than a few mental breakdowns over four decades have taught me to have a radical respect for my bipolar brain. Exhaustion and stress are a trigger, and I simply cannot afford to burn myself out for some external ideal of perfection.
So about a decade ago, I noticed that I was no longer prioritizing achievement and how much I could get done in one day, how long I could stay chained to my desk, or how many emails, phone calls, or any other metric of productivity I accomplished. Somewhere along the line, I started prioritizing balance instead.
There was a radical concept. Defying not only my family of origin’s value system, but also our cultural norms. Look at the ideal metric for capitalist success for example. It’s the hockey – stick curve, right? Exponential growth. More, is more, is more, is better. Well, that aspiration is killing the planet and it was also killing me. Probably lots of other folks too, judging by the epidemic of mental and physical health breakdowns we have in this country.
I decided to try another way. I don’t remember this as an on/off switch decision. I just remember it developing gradually. I began to judge the success of my day via a new metric: balance. I do this in a very simple way connected to the PECS “practices for a healthy brain” I’ve written about elsewhere in my upcoming book, BrainStorm: from Broken to Blessed on the Bipolar Spectrum due out in December! PECS stands for physical, emotional, creative, and spiritual. It’s a great day if I have some element of all four in it. Indeed that’s what I aspire to now.
Here’s one simple way to turn this aspiration into a “practice for a healthy brain.” Start your morning (after yoga or meditation or journaling or prayer – also PECS practices) by looking ahead at your day. Where will you fit in each of the four? I’ve done my morning gratitude practice so there’s a “check” for spiritual. Where am I going to get my aerobics? When do I have time in my day to connect with friends? Where will I spend some time learning or reading or writing? Double clicking on the “Physical” of PECS – and this is key for recovering over-achievers – I look for where in my day I will rest. Power Nap or other form of stopping to renew is essential and huge medicine for our healthy brains. (Stay tuned for the next blog on the beauty and science behind Power Napping.) Then tweak accordingly. So for example if I’m out and about doing errands and then meeting a friend, I make sure to cut the errands short in time for power nap in the car. Same goes for Zooming or other work related meetings. Come 3:30 or 4 I’m going to zoom out and quit to take a break. No one else needs to know what I’m doing at that time, but I do.
You may think that my PECS practice is just the “work, work, work” driven philosophy gone underground? Aren’t I still holding myself to a high level of achievement, just in a stealth way? Perhaps that’s true to some degree. But the difference is I’m not judging myself by an external cultural norms of achievement. I’m after balance now. And I am pursuing a path that is really good for brain and body.
I’m hoping Jill will try it.