Is overachieving a sign of past trauma?


Ever feel like you are always on the go, not feeling comfortable slowing down? All through school, college, medical school, residency, and then practicing medicine, the one thing that I got really good at was staying busy. Planning projects, test-taking, solving cases, treating patients, emails, meetings, joining boards, organizations, getting more certifications, a world of task lists, and checkboxes. What was often sacrificed was being a mom, wife, domestic duties, family time, and self-care. I have been goal driven all my life and felt like staying busy served me well … or so I thought. Filling all my time with to-dos and always saying “yes,” even when exhausted and crazy busy, was worn as a badge of honor instead of an acknowledgment of underlying trauma.

The monkey mind is a busy place. Having trouble slowing down can be a sign of being stuck in fight-or-flight, lacking safety, needing to escape, and seeking to prove self-worth. We are addicted to the constant flow of information, rewarded by feeling of task completion and crave the constant engagement of thought and recognition. Over time, this becomes difficult to escape from, and staying in a perpetual state of being “on” becomes the norm. The internal system is used to being overloaded. Multitasking and hypervigilance drive up adrenaline and temporarily provides relief from the inner suffering. Work becomes a way to sabotage self-care, physically and emotionally. It creates a false sense of control, safety, and security where one can take charge and be confident. This coping behavior starts in childhood, where one finds a sense of stability in taking control of eating behaviors, caring for others, and overachieving in school. Accomplishments, awards, and degrees are driven by the desire to be worthy of love and attention; a work-driven belief system that can bring recognition, feelings of self-worth and enhance self-esteem.

Many medical professionals can relate to the drive to accomplish, achieve, and be recognized, all the while sacrificing personal relationships and self-care. I would like to share what I have learned in the hopes to help others break free of this conditioned response of over-achieving as I believe awareness is the path to health.

1. Work on self-love. An important lesson is that we are already worthy, and we are deserving of love, independent of what we accomplish or “do.” Start each day with a positive affirmation that resonates with this intention. “I am loved, I am enough, I am worthy.”

2. Practice silence. Daily quiet reflection is giving yourself permission to just “be.” Start by taking an hour or two to disconnect from technology, work, reading, writing, or engaging in social activities. Make a commitment to maintaining silence daily for self-exploration and time to digest that inner dialog that can be uncomfortable.

3. It is OK to do less. Give yourself permission to say “no” to extra projects, commitments, events, and activities, especially those that are linked to accolades, recognitions, and certifications. Work on quality experiences that fill your soul even if no one is watching. Become comfortable with passing up opportunities that do not serve you and only pick those tasks that support your vision. Allow for downtime with no schedules, meetings or planning and engage in regular self-care rituals.

4. Let go of judgment. We are constantly evaluating, criticizing, labeling, and analyzing others and ourselves. Find space in your day to practice non-judgment and create a field of silence in the mind. Take one or two hours in the day to remind ourselves, “I will not judge” and bring awareness to when we do.

5. Make time for meditation. Set aside time in the morning to sit in a comfortable, quiet space. The practice of breathwork, a mantra, thoughts of love and kindness or paying attention to our five senses can create body awareness, mindfulness, and clarity. Create time away from distractions and become comfortable with the uncomfortable as this is the journey to healing.

Unraveling our trauma story allows us to understand our coping behaviors. Recognizing that we are equal to everyone else and worthy of love and attention is not an overnight feat. It takes time, patience, and self-love to realize we are enough. Our worthiness is not tethered to an impressive contribution or martyrdom. The healing path starts with creating time for self-reflection, observing silence, cultivating a daily meditation practice, staying in the present moment without judgment, and giving yourself permission for self-care and time off work.

Jyoti Patel is an internal medicine physician.

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