The High Cost of HyperCompetence

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

Two months ago someone near and dear to me attempted suicide, a single working mom who cares for an ill parent on top of it all.  Thank goodness she survived without long-term physical damage.  But when I heard the awful news I thought, “There but for the grace of G-d go I. And more of my friends.  And many leaders in our community.

Even though we were in touch on a regular basis, I had no idea this friend was in so much pain. She has since then reflected a theme I’ve heard from so many people I know:  “You have no idea how much I’m doing, and I can’t handle it anymore.”  I’ve said these words myself.  Have you?

We leaders, especially modern women professionals, need a new way to be in the world.  Many of us are overdoing, beyond what’s healthy for us. We are too good, for our own good, at getting things done. We are hyper-competent.  We are hyper-productive.  We are hyper-accountable. We try to do it all, everything we expect of ourselves and most of what we imagine others expect from us.  We go over, beyond, and above.  Our lives exhaust us.  We try to escape the overload by numbing out — with food, alcohol, pills, media, etc.  But, as my friend Geoff Laughton says, “People’s control strategies aren’t working anymore.“ In other words, we are still in pain.  The stakes of hyper-responsibility and over-empowerment are dangerously high.

I feel a deep calling to open a dialogue about how we are coping, and how we are not. If the above description resonates with you personally, I hope you’ll keep reading.  If it doesn’t resonate with you personally, I hope the same; as you do, please consider who in your life and work may be in this dire of a situation.

I see right now that we professionals all have a choice:

A.   Keep trying to chase our vision of who we should be, with everything we think we should be doing, in the process working ourselves to the brink and perhaps over it -OR-

B.    Do only what’s absolutely most important to us, and trust that the rest will work out

For several decades I lived in accordance with the first option.  I tried to power through my pain.  My attitude was “Let’s keep going. Let’s get back to work and do what we’re supposed to be doing right now.”  So I know from that personal experience that Option A causes physical and emotional damage.  Although I’m not the active workaholic I once was, I occasionally still struggle with that demon.

I’m finally 100% committed to step up to take a stand for others in similar circumstances.  I refuse to stand by and watch people who I love and admire suffer in physical and emotional pain while they’re busily trying not to make mountains out of molehills.  Professional responsibilities and family responsibilities are mountains by their very nature.  Period.  We have to scale them carefully, because mountains, though beautiful, can be dangerous.

It’s time we talk about this more openly, even if we feel embarrassed by having such first-world problems.  I’m ready to lovingly, honestly call myself and other professionals on our self-destruction-in-the-name-of-service ways. The stakes of staying in pain are too damn high – death, physical injury, nervous breakdowns, and physically or emotionally abandoned dependents.

For the several months prior to my friend’s suicide attempt, I found myself in a new headspace.  I decided to stop prioritizing my future over my present.  I was valuing my own needs and living in accordance with my priorities, setting aside my persistent financial worries.  I was dressing up even if I had nowhere to go.  Getting my nails done just because it felt good.  Showing up for my kids even if it felt non-productive.  Taking naps even if it meant time away from work!  I actually felt better than I had in a long time.  I felt happier in my body and in my relationships.

Even so, a sneaky little voice that Freud would call my superego kept whispering to me that living this way was Irresponsible.  The week of that attempt, the very same week that so many others’ expressions of grief also entered my immediate world, I realized the necessary response to that small but powerful inner critic. Here it is: Prioritizing the present over the future is not Irresponsibility; it is the ultimate in Responsibility.  Prioritizing our near-term needs over our long-term wants makes it possible for us to build a future otherwise at risk of existing without us.  With my newfound clarity in mind, I’m finally wholeheartedly grateful for my commitment to taking care of my needs, values and priorities in the midst of an otherwise full life.  Will you join me?

Your life is no doubt equally full, with just as many challenges as I face if not more.  For many of us — modern women professionals who are by nature intellectual, creative, compassionate, tenacious achievers — something is out of whack.  Rather than feeling connected in with our sense of Universal expansion, we are keying into the opposite, more personal, energy of despair. Are you?

For another of my community members, the despair has been showing up in her body.  Her knee is breaking down, the same one on which she had surgery 2 years ago and then insisted on aggressively using before her healing process was complete.   When I recently spoke with her, she complained in one breath about her pain and in the next told me how she was about to leave her house to volunteer as a guide on a walking tour.  I did that thing I promised myself I’d do; I called out the incongruity of her knee pain with her plan to stand for the next several hours.  Thankfully she heard me.  Two days later she called to share that she was feeling despair.  That was her exact word.  I am sure she had been metaphorically running from her despair, and when she stayed home to take care of her knee, her true feelings arose.

We are strong leaders, busy putting everybody else first because we suspect they are more important than we are.  But deep down service may not be our primary motivation.  Are you overdoing in part because you don’t want to FEEL? Because those niggling feelings of sadness and anger terrify you? Serious question: who/what are you cutting off to protect yourself?

Another piece of wisdom from my friend Geoff Laughton:  “The healthy ego works for the heart; the shadow side works for and from the mind.” Rather than expect your mind to power your choices, perhaps it’s time to let your heart be the compass as you navigate through life. We have to learn to give of ourselves without depleting ourselves.  We have to accept that we are important too. It’s time to give from the saucer, not from the cup.  As a result we will have more energy to give in the future.

Am I the only one experiencing this phenomenon of dangerous hyper-competence in my orbit?  Is it also happening to you or around you?  What do you think it’s about?  What’s the power in the pain?  What’s the gift it’s trying to give you?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.  Let’s discuss where we are struggling and how we can shift to leading by giving of ourselves without depleting ourselves.  It’s time.