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.
I’ve just turned 35 and now that I am considered an adult, one of the things that gives me the sense (or illusion) that I am indeed in control of my life is making my own choices. To me, that is the true meaning of freedom: the ability to alter the course of our own life though the choices we make. I take pride in the belief that I make pretty solid decisions most of the time.
When I was younger, one thing I always longed for was guidance and direction. I so desperately wanted to be told what I should do, what’s the right path for me, how I should approach things, and how not to fail. But I did fail, I learned my lessons, and took some sharp turns along the way, but ‘tis life.
As much as I want to believe that I am actually deciding on what the next best step for me is in a given moment, I have to acknowledge that most of my life-changing moments and choices, didn’t quite feel like choices. Rather, they felt like effortless responses to where life was nudging me towards and responses to what needed to take place in my life.
These intuitive responses are what truly shaped the course of my life.
One night, while I was still living and working in Serbia, my friend and I went to have a drink at the café where a mutual friend worked. He told us that he was preparing to go work on a cruise ship. I was 22 at the time, never left my country, didn’t even have a passport. Heck, I don’t even know if I had sent an email before that. But I just knew inside “I want that too. I’m going to work on a cruise ship.” Before I knew it, it was April 2008. I was at the airport for the first time in my life, en route to Cape Canaveral, and saying goodbye to my mom like there is no tomorrow.
Being so far away from everything that was known to me was life-changing.
Yes, there are people around you, and you are not lonely, but you are truly on your own. Feeling completely alone is a unique experience that subtly changes a person. Having a glimpse of a different life changes a person. Until then, a script for what life could be for me was pretty short and involved only several potential roles, none of which felt quite fitting. But this glimpse into a variety of options expanded my vision of what life has to offer and how big and full of opportunities it can be.
After my first contract, I returned to my village in Serbia for a two-month vacation before my next contract was about to start. I knew right away that I was not going to stay in Serbia. I didn’t have a plan, other than returning to my next contract (which I got fired from; one of the best things that happened to me, but a story for another time). I didn’t know what, how, or when, but I knew that my story wasn’t meant to continue there.
By my fourth contract, working on a cruise ship felt draining and it lost its magic and excitement. I was tired of living in a shoe box and felt like it was time for a new chapter. I dreamt about going to college and settling down and grew more frustrated and anxious with where I was in life. A fleeting decision I entertained for a while was to move to Dubai and work as a flight attendant. But this was an idea based on what seemed realistic, not on what I desired.
A few months before my contract ended, I met my boyfriend, now husband. This happened to be his last contract as well, as he was moving to Austin, Texas to pursue a master’s degree in jazz performance. You probably see where this is going ;) Over a random lunch in Italy, he mentioned that I could come to Austin and go to school there. That sounded like a wonderful idea! That was it - that was my next chapter. The two of us often look back in disbelief about how little thought either of us put into moving forward with that idea. But here we are - 10 years later!
What I noticed in these instances was that when I responded to moments of opportunities and chances without controlling, pushing, and putting so much effort, life unfolded in the best possible way. Oftentimes when we find ourselves at the fork in a road, we put so much emphasis on thinking and forcing, but most of the time there is already a choice that just feels right. The choice that’s not about “shoulds” and “musts.”
If we live our life by the shoulds, there will be resistance to what we do. Things will feel heavy and draining and we will have to work really hard to justify them and explain them away with coherent responses that will appeal to our logical mind. This choice can make us feel like we’re living in someone else’s story, feeling stuck and powerless.
All the distress, anxiety, overwhelm, and pain is asking us to stop, listen, and respond. It will keep showing up until we respond in a way that honors our next becoming.
I believe that all of these “symptoms” are a way of life nudging us towards growth and is showing us that what we’re giving energy to no longer has a meaning for us. It’s showing us that we’re becoming someone a little different. Sometimes we’re not ready to hear what wants to happen, and we’re not ready to let go of the life we have because of the familiarity and comfort it gives us.
Self-awareness and introspection are your best friends when it comes to listening to what needs to happen in your life. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.
“Life is about growth and change, and when you are no longer doing either, you’ve received your first whisper. Pay attention to what makes you feel energized, connected, and stimulated. Follow your intuition, do what you love, and you will do more than succeed. You will soar.” Oprah