Lately, I’ve been very out of touch with my inner self. I am riding the whirlwind of what I call my “high”– burying myself in non-stop work each day, leaving little to no time for recuperation and reflection. These “highs” often follow my periods of depression. When the crippling cloud of depression lifts, I jump back up, barely checking myself for bruises and scratches, and run towards the opposite extreme of pushing myself to the mental and physical breaking point in the pursuit of my goals. It’s almost like I’m playing a game of catch-up, after the depressive slumber set me back several steps.
This frenetic mentality of late is a big reason why I haven’t been writing much.
In the past, I’d view such “highs” as a manifestation of my recovery from depression. No longer mired in the depressive symptoms of lethargy, low motivation and feelings of intense sadness, I’d think that my depression had left for good.
What I now know is, even in my high periods, I am just as depressed as I am when trapped in the lows. I am still deeply insecure and void of self-love, and so I turn to the pursuit of external validation to substitute the sense of self-worth I lack. And a poor substitute it is, indeed, for no matter how much I achieve outwardly, I still feel inadequate and undeserving on the inside. No matter what I do, I am never enough for myself.
What I also notice about myself is my tendency to derive pleasure from pain. Ironic, isn’t it? It seems that, when I self-sabotage and live my daily life like a martyr– working 11-hour shifts; practicing dance all day to the brink of physical collapse; sleeping on the couch in my day clothes so as to “save time” the following morning– I feel most at peace with myself. Perhaps it’s largely an identity thing– in my 19 years, I’ve always been known as the “crazy hard-worker”, the one who practices with “intense focus and discipline”. I’ve gained much validation for this endearing quality of mine, and because of that, I feel the need to continually prove to myself and to others that I am indeed this person others make me out to be.
Perhaps I find intrinsic meaning in the act of suffering for my goals and ambitions. In competitive gymnastics, there was no such things as reaching the top without blood, sweat and tears. In the harsh Russian and Chinese schools of coaching, athletes are expected to do no less than push theirselves beyond their mental and physical limits in the pursuit of Olympic glory. In other words, if you weren’t training till your feet bled or tears of exhaustion flowed down your wan cheeks, your commitment level was called to question.
I’ve carried this “no pain no gain” mindset well beyond my days as a competitive gymnast. Even now, as a dancer, I’m very much of the mind of needing to push myself hard to succeed, no matter what the cost. I just can’t live with myself if I don’t try my best in all I do. It’s just not my philosophy. Even if I don’t end up with the gold medal or perfect test score, at least I’d know that I’d given my all in the process and had been able to walk away from the journey without an ounce of regret. I’d be grounded with the clean conscious of knowing I’d left no stone unturned.
Perhaps I can still try my very best without all this suffering, pain and misery. Life is too short to be miserable, isn’t it? Many people have achieved just as well, if not more so, through positivity and grace. In some ways, I CHOOSE this path of martyrdom for myself. Perhaps I find the act of self-inflicting pain to be heroic and honorable. But really, is there anything heroic or honorable about pushing yourself to the breaking point whilst forgoing your mental and physical well-being and wallowing in your dark cloud of negativity and self-pity? Why do I choose this route for myself?
I noticed a very similar pattern arise back in winter quarter, when I went completely crazy in the pursuit of perfect grades for medical school. In the beginning of the quarter, I had dabbled in some new “college experiences” that strayed very far from the strict Mormon ideals I’d been raised with. The result was a gnawing guilt that ate away at me, to the point where I hated everything about the person I had become. Because of this self-loathing, I turned to the pursuit of perfect grades as a means to “redeem” myself. I thought that, if I could perform to the best of my abilities in my academics, my soul would be cleansed of all the guilt and hate I felt towards myself.
The reality is, no amount of external validation will make you feel worthy of self-love. Self-love can only stem from within. To love yourself wholeheartedly is to steadfastly value yourself no matter what you achieve, what you don’t achieve, what others think of you, what others do to you, or what challenges life throws your way. It’s that solid pillar of confidence that I often refer to in previous blog pieces. It’s that unshakeable sense of self-worth that I so desperately aspire to attain.
How am I ever supposed to reach this zenith of spiritual oneness, though, if I continue to self-sabotage in the pursuit of external validation as a means to fill an internal void?
I find that, when I bury myself in my work, 24/7, I have an “excuse” of sorts to turn a blind eye on my soul. That’s when I fall into the trap of ignorance. I refuse to look within because I fear what I will see. I know I have a lot of messed up ideologies in my head that need fixing, but so deep a workaholic I am, that with each passing day, I lose the will to open my journal, write, reflect and confront my demons. Instead, I find myself desperately filling in spare moments of free time with scheduling, making plans, checking emails/text messages, doing anything I can to distract myself from the inner turmoil. This is a tell-tale sign of me slipping into the old, unhealthy habit of intensely and obsessively pursuing my goals, with the hope that, upon achieving, I will love myself more than I do in the present.
It’s largely a personality thing, too. Some people, no matter what, are almost always happy. They don’t take life all too seriously and never let their failures– or achievements– define them. One of my very close friends, whom I will call “R”, epitomizes this bright spirit. She is always smiling– not those plastic smiles masking an internal anguish, but those genuine, warm, relaxed smiles of light-heartedness and contentedness. She laughs off her blunders and social faux pas and is absolutely confident in herself. She doesn’t attend an Ivy League school, nor does she boast many FLASHY titles of sorts, but she radiates self-love. She has her ambitions, but does not let the pursuit of her goals dim her well-being. She has no problem with living the “ordinary” life, working a steady nine-to-five job, having all her basic needs met and being surrounded by close friends and family. Such a life, as I’m growing to learn, is not one to be spurned or ridiculed. In fact, I think the greatest insights and life meanings are often attained from the sideline view. There is something beautiful and courageous about being “ordinary”, and being happy with that. I think “R”, at only 19-years-old, has reached this level of self-acceptance and gratitude for what she has and who she is. Whether she knows it or not, “R” is spiritually more advanced than most of us “overachievers”, who may achieve more on paper, but suffer from great insecurity and an insatiable need to be better– not for themselves, but for the approval of others. “R” is one of my greatest role models. If only I could live my life with the peace of mind she carries herself with… without that menacing voice demanding that I’m not enough, and never will be enough, no matter what I accomplish.
Ambition is a great quality to have. But misguided, extrinsically-motivated ambition, when taken to the extreme, is dangerous. It kills the spirit. It dims the light of life. It makes one withdraw into oneself and gives life to the monsters of self-pity and misery.
Another thing– I am more than just my ability to work hard towards my goals with focus and determination. Even if I didn’t have this quality, I’d still have other amazing facets of my identity– both the good and the bad– that give me value and make me, me. In life, I won’t always been 100% on my A-game. Humans weren’t designed to be robots. We weren’t meant to work nonstop with unceasing motivation and energy. Willpower is a limited resource. Even self-discipline will take you only so far. While it takes self-discipline to focus on working towards your goals, it takes even more discipline to hold yourself back in the pursuit, when you feel your health being compromised in the process. If you don’t give yourself time to rest and recuperate from stress, you will face exhaustion. For some, like me, the symptoms of exhaustion look very much like those of depression. That is a big reason why, following my so-called “highs”, I immediately crash into a “low”.
The “highs” I experience, then- working myself to exhaustion at the expense of my sanity– do not stem from the positive motivators of inspiration and passion. They serve to remedy a felt deficiency and provide a temporary, outer bandage for an inner pain.
You know what they say- the higher you climb, the harder you crash. I must work harder than ever, now, to tackle my demons, before I crash so hard one day, that I’m no longer able to get up.
It all stems from self-love. If I loved myself just as I was, I wouldn’t feel the need to constantly prove my worth through my achievements. It will be a lifelong process indeed. A balancing act on the tightrope of stability. Not too high and not too low, but grounded in reality. I have much work to do with my therapist.