I lay in bed crying. My head hurt from sobbing and my eyes were raw and swollen. I had been crying for hours and I was exhausted. I didn’t have the mental or physical strength to even get out of bed. I grabbed my laptop and sent out a few quick emails to all the people who expected me to show up at varying times that day and explained that I wasn’t going to be able to make it.
I was tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed.
I had so much going on. I knew I had taken on too much, and I felt stuck because I found myself with too many obligations. I was a few years into my PhD program. I was teaching a university class. I had a weekend job as a hospital social worker. And I had just opened a therapy private practice. I was tapped out.
Well-meaning people tried to help me and told me to drop some of the things on my plate. But that was simply impossible.
I was the only Black person in my PhD program cohort. I felt like I couldn’t drop out because it would look bad. Also, obtaining a PhD was a lifelong goal and I didn’t want to quit just because it got too hard and end up regretting it later. I needed my weekend job because it was a steady source of really good income—I was making a small but adequate yearly salary and saving for retirement while only working 2 days a week.
But it also meant no free time or social life. I couldn’t stop my private practice because I had signed a yearly lease for the office space and needed to have enough clients to pay the rent and my part time assistant. And despite my frazzled state of mind, I had already developed a clientele and was doing some really good work with my clients. I couldn’t stop teaching because it was a requirement of my PhD program.
The sum total of all of this was that I felt trapped, lonely, and very empty. I was working on so much, yet I felt like I had nothing to show for any of it. I felt lonely because no one around me really understood my predicament.
But why had I taken on so much in the first place?
I have always been an overachiever. From the time I entered kindergarten, I could handle anything that was put in front of me. And I took pride in it. I had come to expect the impressed look on other people’s faces whenever I did something well. It became my identity and my sole reason for being. And I prided myself for not needing assistance from anyone. It was how I got my rocks off.
Here’s an example: when I graduated from my Bachelor’s program, my department had an awards presentation for all the graduating students in the major. And one after another, my professors gushed about how much they appreciated me as a student and how they envisioned great things for my future. I was singled out more than any other graduating senior in my department that year. That public praise was more important to me than my actual high-priced degree. Receiving praise was my thing. And unfortunately, it became the basis of my self-esteem. I needed it in order to feel good about myself.
But as I got older, it became harder and harder to “impress” people. I was meeting people who were much more accomplished and it started to shake my very sense of self. I had arrived in a PhD program in my late 20s. My peers were younger and smarter. I had to work really hard to keep up with them. And sometimes I honestly didn’t even have the language to communicate my thoughts the way they did. If I wasn’t an impressive person, then who was I? Since I couldn’t answer that question adequately, I decided I needed to “ramp up” my accomplishments.
I decided I was going to be more impressive outside of the classroom. I thought it would make all the frustration and anguish go away. So even though I already had a full plate of doctoral level school work, a weekend job and teaching responsibilities, I opened up a private practice. Probably not the best timing in the world, but it was something that would make me stand out, I thought.
And just as I wanted, from the outside looking in, I looked exceptional to others. People were impressed and told me so- my mother, my brother, both of my landlords, my coworkers, my clients, basically anybody who knew what I was up to. People were rooting for me and told me how proud they were of me. But I felt empty and exhausted.
That morning as I lay in bed weak from crying, I realized that I had become addicted to praise from others and I had backed myself into a corner in which no amount of accomplishments could get me out of. The trap of external validation is fleeting and I had to work harder and harder to have a basic amount of self-esteem.
That morning was when I stopped seeking approval from other people. It was simply too exhausting.
I now know that I am not alone. As a therapist and coach who works almost exclusively with other successful women, I have heard have similar stories. These women have shared the need to be exceptional in order to feel good about themselves. And as ambitious women specifically, they feel a need to overachieve in order to have a basic sense of adequacy.
Through this work, I’ve learned that we feel empty for a number of reasons. And just in case you happen to be one of these women, I want to share these reasons with you.
This is why you feel so empty
1. You feel empty because the world has taught you to need external validation in order to feel good about yourself. You have no idea how to make yourself feel good without approval from others.
2. You feel empty because you are the backbone. You have to be strong because others around you often need your strength. You provide money, advice, and stability to others. But you don’t receive nearly as much as you give to others.
3. You feel empty because you never learned how to tend to your emotional and spiritual self. So when you are in an emotional crises, you have nothing to draw upon to help you through it.
Here are 6 things you can do if you are a high achieving woman ambitious woman who feels unfulfilled and empty:
1. Make a list of all the things that make you happy, bring you peace, and lift your spirits.
This list will become the basis of your self-care toolkit. You absolutely MUST have one. This is how you learn to nurture yourself and self-soothe on a regular basis. When you feed your spirit regularly, you minimize resentment, frustration and overwhelm. As you begin to learn more about yourself, add to the list.
2. Realize that you are not stuck.
You may have painted yourself into a corner with your thoughts and actions, but you can also get yourself out of that corner with different thoughts and different actions. You can create any reality you want.
3. Spend some time thinking about what you really want.
Not what other people want for you and not what you’ve been pursuing necessarily, but what you actually want. This may not be immediately available to you if you’ve spent many years suppressing your desires. But keep at it.
4. Give yourself permission to go after what you want.
Channel your inner Harriet, Assata, or Claudette and give yourself the permission to simply say “no” to the things that don’t serve you. Make a way out of no way if you have to.
5. Sometimes you need support from professionals.
I know this might be difficult to hear because the more accomplished and successful we are, the more we tend to rely on our own efforts. We tell ourselves that we don’t need help and get busy getting things done. But that’s the kind of thinking that paints us into a corner feeling trapped. When you do exceptional things, sometimes it’s hard for the people around you to understand your struggle. Turn to a professional, such as a licensed therapist or coach who can validate your experiences and help you make a plan for moving forward.
6. Understand Your Needs.
We all have needs. Sometimes success comes at an “all or nothing” cost. Achieving your success may have meant that you neglected yourself for years while you were busy reaching your goals. Now is the time to tune into what you need to feel whole. Become aware of your needs and make them known.