The year I said ‘good-bye’ to my hyper-achiever

The year I said ‘good-bye’ to my hyper-achiever

The year 2020 showed me the illusion of  the hyper-achiever mindset and reminded me that people won’t  follow me because of  the job title I hold, but they will listen when I speak with humility straight from the heart. They will listen even if my voice is not perfect, my accent is not posh or my pitch is not eloquent. They will listen because the message of ‘Mothers as Leaders’ unites across geographies and social classes.

I started 2020 thinking that I am going to have a weird year, it was supposed to be my transition year after a 20-year corporate life. I decided to use my package to finance a year in which I will do what my heart desires, and that wasn’t per se lying on a beach in Bahamas. On the contrary, it was about getting myself ready for the new stage in my life.

Still I was starting this new life operating in the old way – I was careful, moderated and taking calculated- risks.    I thought that being ambitious is a good thing, the hyper achiever streak it’s what got me from the girl who grew up on a farm in South East Romania to my current comfortable  life. It must have been a good thing, right?

However at the end of 2019 I couldn’t explain the emptiness I felt inside and the shame I felt for leading a life without a higher purpose than earning a good salary and being better than my peers. I decided that 2020 would be the year for making some drastic changes, but little did I know that the whole planet would go through some drastic changes.

On January 1st 2020, I felt on top of the world and at the same time I was so much out of touch with reality, that it was painful to admit it. I was letting go of the safety net of a highly paid job for the uncertain life of an independent executive coach and writer and it was scary. I witnessed with my own eyes and ears how my father, my hero, was losing his mind and his body functions to a an extremely progressive parkinsonian disease. I didn’t want to accept that he might die, I was busy looking for options and solutions to fix this temporary situation I felt he was in. I couldn’t admit it. The hyper-achiever in me, the one who pushed me towards success in my career was becoming damaging to my ability to deal with this enormous emotional struggle.  

Steliana of January 2020, sabotaged by the hyper-achiever was competitive, image and status conscious, good at covering up insecurities and showing up positive image. I would adapt my personality to fit what would be more impressive to the other and I was certainly goal oriented with a workaholic streak. Even my idea around good parenting was influenced by this mindset and I struggled admitting my vulnerabilities to my kids and because of that my ability to laugh, play with them was impacted. If I look back at the  time when I was picking up the kids at the after-school at 6.30 pm every day, I remember feeling like as if I was on an automatic pilot mode. I drove them places and, in the evening offered a healthy meal but that was all – I didn’t have energy for more.

The tipping point became the month of February, few weeks before the March lockdown started. I booked a last-minute flight  to visit my parents because my dad was taken into the hospital and the prognosis wasn’t good. When I saw him, I couldn’t believe my eyes, but still the ‘hyper-achiever’ in me was holding me back.

I kept telling myself that  emotions get in the way of performance and I need it to the one in the family who deals with the doctors, with the hospital and making sure the problem is fixed. I thought I need it to focus on thinking and action. That’s what my sisters and my parents always expected of me.

Breaking down in tears  wasn’t the way I saw myself reacting to the situation. Instead, I camouflaged my feelings for more than a month, starting with the time I was told by the doctors that there was no hope and all the way after the funeral. I was feeling sick in my body and loosing weight, but somehow I could keep  pretending.

The news of the ‘lockdown’   found me in this state of numbness. When all travel stopped, when all social interactions stopped, I could finally slow down and listen to my inner emotions.

Losing my father in the ICU ward weeks before the pandemic , gave me a sense of perspective but at the same time it allowed me to grow a sense of deep empathy for all the people losing their elderly parents due to COVID. I could feel their pain because I still had a ‘open wound’ myself.

I noticed that if I let go of targets and goals and the need to be successful I can enjoy the time I had with the kids at home, I can enjoy reviewing the home-working assignments and the adrenaline I was feeling when I had to ‘sell’ myself, my story and my book  to companies and strangers. I didn’t have behind me the credentials and the well-known brand of the huge company I worked for before, but to my surprise – ‘Just being ME, seemed to be enough’.

The more I spoke to strangers via webinars, talks and in-house company presentations the more I saw that so many people struggle with similar issues. I wanted so deeply for them to also feel that ‘they are enough, and that they are awesome’ that I shared my most vulnerable emotions,  because ‘how else can you talk about Empathy if you can’t empathize with yourself’.

It wasn’t a smooth journey and, as the year progressed, I have seen the hyper-achiever in me emerge many times, especially when I got rejected, refused or simply not accepted in a certain circle. Because as we all know, starting up a company is never easy and COVID didn’t make it easier. I could hear the hyper-achiever voice whisper in my ear: ‘If you can’t be outstanding, why bother. You must be efficient and effective. See what others do’.

But somehow this year was so extraordinarily different, I could fight that voice. I took up an extensive training on Positive Intelligence taught online  by Stanford Lecturer Shirzad Chamine, and for the past 8 months, I introduced the habit of  daily-practice of mindfulness through 2 minutes exercise and reflections. It helped me intercept my inner-saboteurs and to re-discover my inner strengths and qualities.

So, as I am leaving 2020 behind I am saying good-bye to the hyper-achiever Steliana and I am welcoming the power of empathy and the ability to navigate smoother through the unpredictable tides of life.

  • Have the challenges of this year allowed you to exercise more self-compassion or shifted your inner dialogue?

This article was first published in Thrive Global , Arianna Huffington online magazine on December 28th, 2020. It is a wonderful community for well-being resources and community tips.

Who was your mother before being ‘Mum’?

motherandbabyLook at this picture and imagine that one day, long time ago, that baby was ‘You’ and that woman was your own ‘Mother’. It is hard to picture what was the life of your own mother before you got to know her as ‘Mum’.
In your mind, the ‘ Mum’ image is so strong that the brain finds it difficult to process the image of a young woman who once wandered through the world without worrying or caring about your existence.  Maybe your imagination is better than mine, but I was up for a big surprise when I interviewed my own mother for my book (look for it in 2018!). I interviewed many mothers  in the past year and I didn’t expect  it would be so emotional to hear my own mum’s life story and mainly the ups and downs she had before I was there. We spend one and a half hours together, with a little voice recorder on the table, my mum telling vivid stories of her childhood, her teenager time and how she almost died while giving birth to a ‘stillborn’ baby after a second pregnancy and me really listening , listening with my heart.  

She told me about the difficulties of young women in the Romania of  the ’70s who were forbidden to end any pregnancy. The doctors  were facing criminal prosecution if there was a suspicion that they were helping women with abortions. The autocratic Ceausescu’s introduced Decree 770/1966 to stimulate Romania’s population growth and the young women were tasked to deliver it. If you were hospitalized in the last trimester but hadn’t reached the 7 months cut off date, you were put in a special ward with ten other women in pain and left to deliver that baby alive or stillborn all by yourself . No doctor or nurse wanted to take the responsibility of what could have been seen by the regime as a provoked and unsuccessful abortion. If you were lucky enough to come for delivery after seven months, you got all the attention and support of a free, state sponsored medical system. It was a tough time for women like my mum, who had no choice but to stay in full employment while encouraged to put their babies in creches after six months.

I walked away from the evening with a new image of my mum and I understood how much life changed her from that ambitious young girl who wanted to go to University because she knew she had the brains for it, to that committed Mother who decided to give up on studying after giving birth to three kids she had to care for. What I learned in that evening is that:

I never actually knew who my mother really is, until that very moment.

My mother is an incredibly powerful woman who willingly gave her power away to my father and, in some cases, to her parents-in-law in exchange for the happiness and fulfillment of her children.

Do you really know who your mother was before being your mum?

Take some time to get to know her before is too late and if you want to know what questions I used in my ‘interview’ drop me a line and I am happy to help.

I was inspired to write this article after reading a piece of daily news about Harvey hurricane in Houston and the sad story of a mother and a child who had to leave their car for safety and unfortunately they were washed away by the water just before rescue forces got there. They only managed to save the child.

Thank you ‘Mama’ for everything you have done for me!

*********************

About the Author:

Steliana van de Rijt-Economu is a mother of two young children Kara and Thomas, the wife of Sjors and in the past fifteen years she has been a HR Organizational and leadership consultant and coach.  She grew up in communist Romania, spent some of her youth in London and now lives with her family in The Netherlands. She believes that the world would be a better place when more women and mothers  ‘lean in’ to take that leadership position they are afraid of.

Her mission in life is  ‘to give people all over the world the opportunity to discover their uniqueness, their strength and the power to follow their dreams’.

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