If you are a high-achiever and always have a long to-do list, it is likely that you are familiar with a nagging voice that just won’t let you relax. The one that keeps telling you that if you take time to slow down, everything will fall apart. The one that steals the peace of your present day and convinces you that if you worry some more, you might come up with a solution to all your problems. The one that tells you that who you are isn’t good enough, so you need to read that next book, attend that latest self-development course, be better, do more, and follow in the steps of others who seem to have cracked the code so they must know better than you. Then, maybe, you will finally feel content and confident in who you are. Then, you will be happy, fulfilled, and will be able to relax.
I call this nagging voice a thieve of joy and peace. It creates rumination, overthinking, and self-judgment, and it takes over so fast that before you know it, you are down the rabbit hole chasing and wrestling with stories that either belong to the past or to the future. It arises in thoughts, feelings, sensations, or images that trick us into believe that their messages are facts and that what they’re telling us has merit to it.
Oftentimes, in attempts to silence that voice, you may put a lot of effort into trying to predict possible outcomes and do everything to control the situations you are about to face. That control seemingly keeps your anxiety at bay because it creates a false sense of comfort and predictability. But the more you do to placate the internal anxiety, the more tension, panic, and fear it creates, leaving you unable to deal with things you didn’t anticipate.
If you grew up in constant scarcity, your life narrative becomes one of struggle and hardship. This script says that, only through hard work can you have the life you want, only after suffering can you experience ease, only if you are constantly ahead is when you are not falling behind. Then finally, you may come out the other side as a victor. But unfortunately, this story doesn’t end there. Instead of relishing in that victory, celebrating yourself, and soaking in the good moments, you start anticipating the next struggle. You anxiously wait, unable to relax because you learned that you need to be prepared, you need to control, put effort, try harder, and do more… or you will fail.
You may notice this voice or sensations most clearly when you sit down to relax and do anything that’s not considered “productive” by our standards. That little voice might say “what are you doing enjoying yourself and being all self-indulgent?” It might be telling you there are things you COULD or SHOULD be accomplishing instead of just being and not fighting the next big fight and suffering.
Throughout my life, the narratives that fueled me were ones of an underdog. Opportunities appeared only after struggles. I was fascinated by stories of those who made it through major adversities and came out on the other side, not merely surviving, but thriving! My mom and I would watch the Oprah Show on our old black and white TV, and I would be completely drawn into the story my mom was telling me about Oprah and how she made it through it all. That was the first seed planted in me that if I just work hard enough, I can succeed.
In different chapters of my life, I was constantly searching, working hard, unable to relax, and being pulled towards the next big thing. Constant anxiety made it difficult to truly celebrate all the accomplishments that seemed so distant at one point. Had I not had this voice pushing me and nudging me, my life would have been very different and perhaps I wouldn’t have accomplished most of the things I dreamed of.
But at some point, I noticed that this feeling of restlessness felt unnecessary, draining, & tiresome. It kept arising any time I would slow down and relax. As if I anticipated that the good things in my life were about to last only for a short while and my next struggle will find me unprepared. I kept having to remind myself that this is an old voice that doesn’t serve me anymore, and that good things can last and don’t always have to be preceded by difficulty and lack. Letting go of the control became an intentional act of self-trust and faith that I deserve peace and happiness even when I don’t suffer.
If you find yourself constantly controlling every little action and putting a lot of effort into predicting outcomes, you are not allowing for effortless opportunities to come to you. Sometimes the most difficult act is to let go and simply trust; to notice the anxiety and let it be there; to hear that little voice saying you’re not good enough, and believe you are in spite of it, to notice the discomfort of your feelings and further lean into them.
A few tips for dealing with the internal critic, anxiety, & overthinking.