Dr Perpetua Neo

Time To Stop Feeling Ashamed Of Your Mental Health Needs As A High Achiever

Have you ever hidden what was going on with your mental health because you were afraid of what others might think? Maybe you’ve been told all your life to aim high and there’s always been pressure for you to be the best. Maybe you feel guilty and anxious when not working, and you’re starting to realize it’s a problem. Or maybe, you’re surrounded by high-achieving peers, and you can’t let yourself be the one who falls behind.

Of course, you would never admit this. I mean, how many people actually tell the truth about how they’re feeling?

Years ago, I worked in a high-pressure job. The phrase “top performer” was used often to describe people in my group.

This was a job where everyone was always “on”, and happy hours were spent sharing work wins and giving kudos to people who were crushing their projects.

But, it was a cut-throat job where showing any sign of weakness could cost you your reputation, or future opportunities.

I knew I was burning out. So, I took a mental health day.

When I got back the next day, a co-worker asked to speak with me in private. She told me that she overheard our director asking if anything was going on with me since I was out (because people hardly took days off, even if they really needed to).

I could tell she was coming from a good place. She was trying to help me be prepared to speak about my absence in case a higher up questioned me about it.

I told her, “Yeah, I just really needed a mental health day.”

The energy in the conversation suddenly changed. I immediately felt like I made myself vulnerable. Too vulnerable.

I think about the shame I felt in this moment, and know now that it’s the same shame that keeps many hard-working top performers from admitting that they have mental health needs.

Most of the time, this boils down to some common fears.

FEAR OF NOT BEING ACCEPTED BY PEERS, FRIENDS, AND FAMILY

“When I was younger and things were hard, we didn’t cry about it, we just dealt with it.”
-something your mom, dad, stern auntie or macho cousin set-in-his-ways has probably said

This is also probably the same mom, dad, auntie, or cousin who is clearly dealing with some mental health struggles of their own, even if they don’t use that language to describe it.We all use different words to describe how we feel, and a lot of this is generational. You might call it “mental health”, but your friends or family might say, “I’m so stressed out” or “I feel overwhelmed”. But those words go deeper in meaning, even if that person is not ready to recognize it yet. This can leave you feeling very alone.You can feel the stigma around it. So, you’re trapped in this never-ending cycle of shame where no one knows what you’re going through because you’re not telling anyone. And you can’t tell anyone because there’s no one to talk to!

But, there is usually at least one person we can talk to about anything, whether that is a best friend, therapist, parent or sibling.

Ideally, this person will have already proven to you that they know how to talk about mental health in a sensitive way. Maybe they’ve been open about their own mental health needs, or perhaps they’ve said something that let you know they take mental health seriously.

Start with this person first. Let them know how you’re feeling. Sharing with this person can help you start to shed the shame around your struggles.

If you’re really nervous, here’s a script for how the conversation might start off.

First, pick a calm, quiet and private place to have your conversation.

You: [name], can I talk to you about something?

Them: Sure, what’s going on?

[Ideally, both of you take a seat and face each other. Get comfy, relax.]

You: I haven’t been feeling that great lately, and I think you’ve noticed. Something is wrong, and I just need a lot of support right now. You’ve always been there for me, but even so, it’s still a really hard thing for me to talk about.

Them: What is it?  

You: I’ve been dealing with anxiety.

Them: Anxiety?!

You: Yeah, anxiety.

Them: Is it work? You know, you can’t let yourself get stressed about that. You have to leave that at work and once you get home, forget about it.

[If you experience this type of response, just take a deep breath and stay quiet for a moment to collect your thoughts. This is a common response and you need to be prepared to navigate around it.]

You: I can understand how it might seem that way, but this is really different. And I need you to listen first. Like I said, this is hard for me to talk about but I trust you and want to be able to tell you about it. Can we do that?  

Them: Yes.

Notice how you need to be prepared to get derailed by the responses of the other person. In most cases, people are not trying to derail you, but since they care about you, they immediately jump to trying to fix the problem.

Find someone who you really trust, and be honest with them about the support you need.

FEAR OF BEING SEEN AS INCAPABLE

The fear of being seen as incapable at work or school is something everyone feels.

You know you already have a lot to be proud of, but being surrounded by other accomplished people triggers feelings of insecurity. You wonder, “Am I really doing enough?”

This can push you to overperform to the point where you burn out. But while trying to achieve the feeling of “doing enough”, many people end up doing busy work instead of focusing on real priorities.

I was once at a networking event with students from an elite American business school. One of the alumni at the event said, “While you’re in b-school, you can study, work, or socialize. Pick two, because you won’t be able to do all three.”

This was a very successful person who had some really impressive accomplishments under his belt. And even he was admitting you can’t do it all at once.

Instead, you need to pick and choose what you want to work on now and keep the other things in mind for later. You can always revisit them and decide if they are still worth your time.

Here’s a quick exercise to determine if what you want to accomplish aligns with your current capacity. If it does, then you know you’re safe from burnout.

The High Achiever’s Anti-Burnout Exercise
Step 1:

List all of the goals you are actively working on. Underneath those goals, list everything you are doing right now to achieve those goals (get really detailed!).

Step 2:

Rate your energy level right now from 1-10. 10 equals “I’m Bugs Bunny on the moon!” and 1 equals “Naps. Need more naps.”

If your energy level is 7 or more, congrats! You’re doing great! You’re clear of the burnout zone. If your energy level is 6 or less, go to Step 3.
Step 3: Take the list you’ve written, and start crossing off everything that is not necessary to achieve your goals.

Example:

Goal: Get promotion by end of year

Things I’m doing:

  • Always be on time for meetings
  • Be responsive to boss at all times
  • Accomplish all current roles and responsibilities
  • Work on a high-value stretch project
  • Go to all team happy hours
  • Have quarterly check-ins with manager about a possible promotion
  • Always be available to support other team members  

The things that are crossed out are important, but are usually not high-priority if your main goal is to get a promotion. You can be late to a meeting sometimes, and people won’t even notice if you’re contributing high-value during the discussion.

24 hours can pass by without you responding to your boss, and it wouldn’t matter as long as you’re responsive when it really counts (eg. if you’re on point for a really important project).

You can go to happy hour once a month, instead of every week, and still maintain great relationships with your co-workers. Similarly, you can be there to help your team, but always remember that your work comes first.

Step 4: Looking at your new list with things crossed off, estimate what your new energy level will be trying to achieve your priority goals.
Step 5: Ask yourself, “Do I feel like I am capable of achieving these priority goals at this new energy level?”
If “No”, go back to Step 3. You have some more crossing off to do. If “Yes”, awesome! You’ve got a clearer picture of what needs to get done.

People who work on their priorities are never seen as incapable - they’re seen as focused and driven.

When you’re working on a few well-defined priorities, you become less susceptible to burnout. More importantly, you won’t feel like you’re not doing enough because you know what you’re doing and why.

FEAR OF ACKNOWLEDGING THERE IS A PROBLEM AND WE ALL NEED HELP

Doing internal work is scary.

And if you’re a person who is juggling a lot, you might be concerned about the amount of time it will take to “fix” things related to your mental health.

But this is not something you can put a timeframe on. Instead, shift your mental framework from “This is something I need to fix quickly” to “This is what it will cost me in the long run if I don’t start slowly changing things for myself now.” Most high-achievers are so focused on their professional goals, that they often end up having “Oh, shit” moments.

  • “I have a really great career, but oh shit, I forgot to take care of my mental health.”
  • “I’m making six figures, but oh shit, I forgot to find someone to share it with.”
  • “I got that promotion, but oh shit, I have no friends to celebrate with.”

This is what happens when we keep on pushing our emotional health and well-being to the side. External achievements are great, but we only start to really appreciate their value when we couple them with internal achievements and meaningful relationships.

Save yourself from having an “Oh, shit” moment, and ask for help when you need it.

Think about the last time you were in a group of people, and there was one person in the group who was refreshingly honest about something vulnerable.

Did you respect them less for speaking up? Or, did you feel more respect for them for telling the truth?

Of course you respected them more!

We respect people who are true to themselves. It gives the rest of us permission to follow suit and show our truth.

There are parts to us that we hide when we walk through the world. Parts that others may never know or see. But we carry them, always. They make us who we are.

One of these parts is the quality of our mental health.

Shedding the shame is a way for us to shine a light on all parts of ourselves. And if we wanted, we can decide to stop being ashamed.

  • Via Abolencia writes at ScrappyMind.com, a self-development website for overcomers of adversity, overlooked leaders, and creative problem solvers who are committed to making the world a better place. Download a copy of the anti-burnout exercise here.
  • Interested in sustainable high performance in a bespoke 1-1 VIP program tailored to you, by DrP? Book your free Chemistry Call here.

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