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.