A High Achiever’s Dilemma: to Kill or Not to Kill Emotional Pain?


A High Achiever’s Dilemma: to Kill or Not to Kill Emotional Pain?

One day, after 16 hours of intense pain in my gut – and a sleepless night – I walked into the emergency department at the Alfred Hospital to get myself checked out. I thought it was best not to wait too much longer and hope that the pain would disappear without any assistance. Thankfully the issue was not too serious (I’d probably eaten something I shouldn’t have), and after a few hours of examination, the doctors let me go with prescriptions for an assortment of painkillers.

As I was going to pick up my medication, the pharmacist asked me discreetly if I might want to buy extra painkillers for future use, in addition to what I’d been prescribed. She was surprised to hear that I don’t stock painkillers at home. On the rare occasion when I’m in severe pain I try to figure out what caused it and then address it at the source.

Those feelings have to go.

Well, I have a very different relationship with remedies for emotional pain. Over the last decade or so I’ve often turned to healing techniques such as neuro-linguistic programming, life coaching, emotional freedom technique, energy healing and therapeutic yoga when I experienced emotions that my teachers and gurus deemed as ‘unuseful’ or ‘inauthentic’. Whenever I was angry, pessimistic or irrationally fearful, or feeling lonely or lost, those feelings had to go ASAP.

These healing modalities do have a place and a purpose – they are not only soothing in the short term but can also help with long-lasting personal transformation. However, I now find that controlling too tightly how we feel can also limit our growth as a person.

The league of virtuous people.

I consider myself a high achiever, most of my friends and peers are high achievers, and if you’re reading this article, you’re also likely one of us. We, high achievers, tend to have great expectations of ourselves. When we read one of those 17 Character Traits of Exceptionally Successful, Happy and Attractive People type articles that often go viral on social media, we secretly run a quick mental check to see how well we’re scoring.

And when we look at the other side of the coin and read about emotional manipulators, energy vampires, losers and the like, we just know that we’re different. If we’re not already members of the ‘league of virtuous people’, we’re certainly working hard to qualify. And therefore, feeling intolerant and judgmental, or experiencing regret and self-pity – like some of those blacklisted people do – are simply not OK. We may not have all the answers about who we are, but we tend to have a pretty clear picture of who we are not.

Facing an unfamiliar part of ourselves.

High personal standards can keep us on track towards our goals … but then one day something happens in our lives that forces us to face an aspect of ourselves that has previously been dormant. And that can be pretty confronting.

What can trigger such a personal shift? Perhaps a traumatic life event. Experiencing spectacular failure. Finding ourselves in life circumstances that don’t match the picture, we carry in our minds of our ideal self. Losing our relationship, home and financial security… Ironically, these kinds of situations occur more often in the lives of high achievers, as they tend to take more risks than others and venture further beyond their comfort zones.

Interestingly, I’m at the greatest risk of experiencing emotional challenges after hitting a major milestone in my life, like making a significant leap in my career, achieving a financial goal, creating a new home, or ticking off something huge on my bucket list. Just when life starts to seem easy and peaceful, I’m hit by a wave of existential crisis. I hear this is not uncommon.

Who is this person?

On some of these days, I look in the mirror and see a person who I’m not supposed to be – someone who is fiercely judgmental, unfocused and undisciplined, and pissed off about life for no rational reason. I witness an avalanche of inappropriate thoughts going through my mind – where are these coming from? I observe changes in my habits, my taste in music, and even in my language. I lose interest in activities I used to be passionate about, and get drawn to new, ‘crazy’ things instead.

This can be a lonely place to be – questioning everything I’ve learnt about living an honourable life from people I trust deeply. But let me tell you, there’s also something magical about this experience. The wacky part of myself that I’m discovering is every bit as real and authentic as the other, familiar part of myself which knows that I’m a smart, kind and caring person.

There will be treasures.

But for now, I’m calmly saying no to emotional painkillers, and taking a bit of time to understand what’s going on inside me. It’s time to say hello to the part of me which I’ve been ignoring for so long. Perhaps it can teach me something valuable or help me create something new and beautiful. Just look at all those creators and artists – authors, painters, musicians and performers – whose masterpieces grew from a place where darkness meets the light.

As Ajahn Brahm, a respected Buddhist spiritual leader says, “The tastiest fruits and the most beautiful flowers grow from a soil that’s been fertilised with s**t”.

I’m not sure what’s going to sprout from this messy place inside me – I’ll need to wait and see. But I trust that it’s something worth looking forward to. Whenever in the past I’ve welcomed disturbing emotions with curiosity and patience, some real treasures also showed up.

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