Burden of Greatness Revisited

In the movie, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the queen gave her soul to her country, sacrificing romance, fun, and even a decent night’s rest. Yet she faced a nearly-impossible challenge and prevailed. Is she a role model?

As children of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, girls as well as boys were raised on the self-help movement, full of words such as “empowerment” and “brilliance.” Someone, a family member, sports coach or teacher, taught us that we are truly the masters of our destinies and we have the power to create whatever we desire. In fact, they not only told us we were amazing, but that we had the capability to be better than everyone else. We could all be heroes.

The result: we have bred a new kind of super-achiever. Whether true or not, as children many of us felt we had to be special to be loved. Our self-esteem rested on how many successes we could rack up. “You did that so well, now do this…” was a common household mantra. Every life situation called for a confirmation of our intelligence or strength of character. Our purpose in life was to be brilliant at something. We were little trains that could, puffing hard to show our worth.

A few years ago I wrote a Brain Tip called The Burden of Greatness. Many of you wrote to me after reading it, letting me know how much you related to the concept. Since completing my dissertation on high-achieving women, I want to take a closer look at the dilemma of the high-achiever. Even if you don’t fit this profile, you probably live or work with one so you, too, might find some insight here.

The High-Achiever: Armed with a rock-hard confidence in our abilities, we seek constant challenge and hate feeling bored. We are resilient and determined. Many of us are admired but also envied. We love being seen as “somebody.” After all, we would disappear if we were “nobody.”

The result: Grand achievements. Yet we struggle to savor our accomplishments for longer than a moment, knowing there is always more to do on this journey with no particular destination (what is your definition of “enough?”).

Even if we long for a peaceful moment, there is a never-ending list of activities that must be done. We are often restless, discontent and prone to harshly judging others. We complain of being underutilized and underappreciated, even when we work for ourselves! If we are not anchored to a strong life purpose, underneath it all, there is a feeling of emptiness.

Who am I if I am not brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Yes, this statement comes from a famous quote by Marianne Williamson saying we, as children of God, are all of these things. Yet, as a child of God, can’t we ever be ordinary?

In truth, although we think we are in control, we high achievers often fail to see the choices available for us in life. We act as if we are on an ordained path of greatness. Although we accomplish amazing things and help a lot of people, this greatness is an ever-present burden. We can’t let ourselves feel the relief of being no one special, a run-of-the-mill human. We can barely spend an hour having meaningless fun. Are we missing the experience of life?

A New Perspective: We have to be brutally honest about who we are, how we got here, and what road we are on in order to freely channel our drive. We must liberate ourselves of the burden of greatness. We are never fully free if our self-respect and happiness is dependent on wonderful achievements.

Brain Tip #1: Today be no one and see what shows up. Stretch yourself in a way that probably won’t work (try something that you might enjoy but you can’t do well today…a sport, an art, an acting class). Is there anything you haven’t tried or gave up on because you weren’t good at it? Do it now and then say, “So what” when you don’t perfectly succeed.

When you are released from being superior, you can discover and give voice to what you deeply value and enjoy. All this will lead to a sense of ease and grace with yourself. In the end, you will wake up to feeling alive and able to savor the amazing world around you, something difficult to access now for more than a moment.

Brain Tip #2: This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still exceed expectations and succeed. Yet if you work on consciously choosing when you need to know it all or be the best, you’ll distinguish those times when it isn’t worth the loss of joy. Contempt will evaporate, having lost its point. You will honor people not just for how clever they are, but how kind and playful they can be. You will have compassion for the weakness and uncertainty in others, and even for yourself (something you haven’t done since you were young).

I am talking about an identity shift which will take time, trust, and the support of friends. If you are a woman, I have created a blog called BurdenofGreatness.com where you can learn more about yourself and grow. If you are a man, visit the site and comment on how this differs or relates to your experience. Finally, if you aren’t a high achiever but work with or live with one, this site will be a great companion to navigating your relationship. Please visit soon and return often.

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