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.
Many people come to therapy not being able to pinpoint why they are struggling. They just know that life isn’t fun and fulfilling, and they feel stuck, unhappy, numb, broken, anxious, or depressed.
I believe this happens when we (unconsciously) keep navigating the world with strategies and identities that were once helpful, but they no longer are. A favorite metaphor of mine for this is trying to use an outdated map to navigate around new terrain. As children, we learn who we need to be to be accepted and loved, but as we become adults, those identities may start to feel tight and uncomfortable – like an old, unfitting suit.
I remember existing and being there, but not feeling seen.
Growing up in a traditional patriarchal household meant not challenging adults, especially men. You needed to be quiet and push down your expectations, needs, and wants. One of the unspoken rules was that when adults are in the room, children have to disappear. I don’t have any memories of us sitting at the table and having meaningful conversations or sharing experiences and lessons. In my family, what children had to say was irrelevant.
A specific memory that comes to mind is one of my dad coming home from work and whoever was sitting in the “good” chair had to get up. No one ever questioned this and over time we would make sure that this chair is empty for him to sit in. The same was with the TV. We had one TV in the living room/kitchen/bedroom and there was no debate as to what will be on. My dad had a saying that when he watches TV (his favorite past-time was, and still is, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee while watching sports) he must not hear a fly. Meaning my mom, my sister, and I had to be quiet. When we were silent and unnoticed, we were rewarded by him not being angry.
This was working, until it wasn’t.
These and many other instances, were something I haven’t thought about much throughout my life. I cognitively understood these experiences and promised myself that I am not going to have that type of marriage and that kind of life. But these messages were engrained in me so strongly that I wasn’t aware of how they were still playing out in my life as an adult.
That is, until I found myself in situations in which I had to either speak up, have an opinion, share about myself, be visible and noticed, and have a voice of my own.
Through continuous self-reflection, questioning, and learning, I realized that I was most comfortable when I am unnoticed, don’t bother anyone, don’t ask for what I want, don’t express anger and frustration, when I’m quiet and invisible, when I make myself small, and when I anticipate other’s needs and put mine aside.
I wanted more from life.
Over time, I realized those old identities didn’t feel right anymore. The life I wanted, required me to let those identities go and learn new ways of being. I was no longer that helpless child being at the mercy of its environment. I didn’t have to make myself small and invisible just because that was something I knew how to do well. Those behaviors helped me survive in my family but keeping them didn’t feel necessary anymore.
Questions to ask yourself.
Now as an adult you can learn how to give yourself what you need.
You can cultivate love and self-compassion for yourself as you are, with all the strengths and imperfections that you may deem so unacceptable.
You can welcome all parts of yourself and feel worthy without punishing yourself for your internal experiences. You can learn how to create a new map for the life you want and choose how you want to be instead of being driven by old patterns.
You can be you again.