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4 Things You Should Do if Your Drive for Success is Taking a Toll on Your Mental Health

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There is no cookie-cutter formula for success. Success can look different depending on who you talk to. Some people pursue wealth while others chase after accolades. Then there are those who define success by the quality of their relationships with family and friends. In addition, others focus on their health and physique as a measure of success or self-worth. 

Often a person’s pursuit of success will depend on factors including what they feel they need to be okay with being who they are, or to get the love and approval they desire, or to meet expectations they believe they should achieve.

Whatever your definition of success, it can be helpful to know what motivates your pursuit for “more”— especially when a drive for success may be taking a toll on your mental health and ruining your quality of life. 

Below you’ll find four recommendations for how to regain a healthier perspective in your quest for success:

1. Be mindful of your daily stress levels and how you’re feeling

There is no point in reaching a goal of success if you wear yourself down day after day in the process. As is often said, happiness is a journey, not a destination. If your pursuit of success has become so stressful that it only feels like drudgery, it may be time to take some self-care measures. 

Poorly managed chronic stress can be as bad for your mental health as post-traumatic stress by negatively affecting your mind, thinking, body, behaviors, and relationships.

Chronic stress also impairs cognitive abilities and is associated with greater impulsiveness. That’s because we humans have a very sophisticated, built-in alarm system of sorts. This highly evolved stress response is designed to warn us of potential danger. 

In the face of a perceived threat, our body releases endorphins like adrenaline and cortisol. These chemicals prepare the body for “fight or flight”— a survival mechanism that can be incredibly handy when you’re staring down a lion on the African savannah. When you’ve got a big presentation tomorrow that you’ve had zero time to prepare for? Less so.

When your body gets accustomed to living in a near-constant state of fight or flight, your sleep is one of the first things to go. You’re then more likely to turn to pills, alcohol, or food to feel better. You also feel tired all the time and more inclined to be short with others or retreat altogether. Consequently, your relationships suffer.

Sleep, health and relationships are helpful barometers of stress levels, among other things. Pay attention to how you’re doing in these areas. Often, just a tweak here or there—to sleep and/or other lifestyle habits—can be a game changer for stress management.

“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” – Bruce Lee

2. Strive for balance in all areas of your life, even if that balance seems elusive at times

If you’re regularly hitting home runs in one area of your life (such as in your profession) but keep striking out in every other domain (your relationships, health, etc.), you’d be better served exploring ways to juggle all of the aspects of your life. Don’t just be focused on one area of living.

The ideal is to strike a healthy balance between the physical, emotional, spiritual, career, and relationship spheres of life.

When we over-focus on one area, the other areas can suffer. A case in point: the workaholic who works all the time and soon finds they have nothing else; their health suffers, they are lonely, they don’t take time for their emotional and spiritual self and only keep draining the well until there is little left. This is called “burnout.” When you’re suffering from burnout, you are like a car without gas in the tank, you grind to a halt unexpectedly.

3. Seek greater flexibility, by cultivating an attitude of acceptance

People with a higher quality of life often report they have flexibility. They adjust to situations rather than ask situations to adjust to them. They do not demand their way, ask others to be the way they “should” be (but aren’t now) or set unreasonable expectations regarding outcomes.

We are all just human beings interacting in a vast and complicated world, so there is freedom in accepting the reality that we cannot simply “will” ourselves into success. If you can learn to accept and not fight life on its terms, but to adjust and respond in a healthy way, you’ll find that you’ll be better at dealing with the setbacks and issues you face each day.

Often a regular practice of mindfulness can be helpful at inculcating greater acceptance of oneself and the world around us. With that acceptance comes greater flexibility.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” – Albert Einstein

4. If fear is motivating your pursuit of success, work on letting it go

If fear were a person, it would only be selfish and self-interested. Fear assumes there are scarce resources and that you have to get yours or else be left out. When fear is operative, you constantly look for the next bad thing to happen; and your thinking, planning and coping skills are compromised because of your fear response.

Fear is not a motivator, it is a de-motivator. It is a hamster wheel that constantly keeps going, making us run for our lives without a break. There is always something else for us to be afraid of.

You would never knowingly instill fear in a child and tell them that is the ticket to success.  Instead, you would try to comfort, inspire, problem-solve and give them a feeling of self-worth and confidence. The same interventions work well for most of us grown-ups. If your success is driven by fears of failure or of not being good enough or of letting others down, it may be time to do some soul searching.

Maybe consider consulting a life coach or seeing a therapist. Not even the greatest fantasy of “having arrived” is worth achieving if that process is driven by what you’re afraid of.

Does your mental health ever take a toll because of your drive towards success? Share your thoughts and beliefs with us below! We’d love to know.

Dr. Beau Nelson heads the Clinical Services department at FHE Health, a nationally recognized behavioral health provider treating addiction and mental health conditions.  Learn more about FHE Health’s treatment programs here.

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