When I was little, the world felt like a playground.
I remember strutting around in my underwear, singing at the top of my lungs, and never once worrying what people would think about me.
But somewhere along the way, I stopped being so free, self-expressive and excited. My zest for life diminished.
Rather than living playfully, without constraints, I began to spend much of my life in pursuit of what I believed would make me happy: career goals, financial goals, relationship goals, fitness goals, lifestyle goals, weight loss goals.
These goals left me feeling like I needed to numb out, stress out and check out of life. I felt overwhelmed by their magnitude and volume.
But why? I lived on the same planet that I did when I was three years old, didn’t I?
The planet didn’t change—I did. My life still contained the infinite possibilities it did when I was three.
But somewhere along the way, I decided that there was something wrong with me and that I had better make sure nobody figured that out.
“I’m not good enough” became the dirty little secret I hoped accomplishments would cover up.
But no amount of straight As, weight loss, trophies or leadership positions were ever enough. I had to keep accomplishing more and better things in order to keep the world (and myself) distracted from finding out the “real me.” The one who, deep down, I felt was nasty or selfish or unruly or gross or lazy or mean or ugly or bad or weak or stupid—were it not for my accomplishments.
But trying to cover up the parts of myself that I didn’t like with accomplishments was like drinking salt water to quench my thirst.
The more I accomplished, the more I needed to accomplish to distract myself from feeling not good enough. It was a loop that kept feeding back into itself.
I felt trapped. Exhausted. Uninspired.
I got so caught up in the need to prove myself that I was no longer present in my life. I didn’t think I deserved joy, peace, surrender or fulfillment.
I thought that I’d be allowed to feel how I wanted to feel once I just achieved that one…more…goal.
I was stuck deep down in what I now call The Achievement Trap.
Here’s how it works:
We start off as bright shining balls of pure potential. And then we encounter perceived failures (e.g. we’re not picked for soccer, a parent walks out, we face abuse, our crush turns us down, friends laugh at us).
In response to this, our minds rationalize that because we failed to get love or belonging or approval, it must mean that we are fundamentally not good enough.
These beliefs about our inadequacy fester under the surface, undetected. Because of these subconscious beliefs, we exert lots of time and energy in a futile attempt to prove (to ourselves and others) that we are, in fact, good enough. We think that once we sufficiently prove ourselves, we will be immune to getting hurt (as we were in the past).
Our achievements then become a smoke screen, blocking our feelings of inadequacy from our view and others’.
These feelings of not-enoughness parade around as ambition or determination. But really they’re a masked attempt to prove our worthiness. Often, people who are “goal-oriented” have deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. Our goals allow us to live in the future and prevent us from actually having to deal with our feelings of unworthiness in the present moment. We get so caught up in goal achievement that we are (conveniently) distracted from having to confront our underlying feelings.
The problem is that we set these goals under the false assumption that once we achieve them, the underlying feeling of inadequacy will dissolve. But the feeling of inadequacy comes from something that happened in our past that made us feel not good enough.
When we actually achieve a goal, we may feel good about ourselves for a brief time, but eventually the same uncomfortable feeling that caused us to set the goal in the first place resurfaces. Achieving to compensate for feeling unworthy is like putting icing on top of a pile of mud and calling it dessert.
Our core beliefs about ourselves remain, despite how great our lives look. Eventually, the feelings of unworthiness emerge.
So instead of trying to achieve a future-based goal to heal a past-based wound, allow yourself to feel your feelings of inadequacy. Do not numb them with achievements. They can only ever be healed in the present moment, where they live.
So look them in the face. Call them out of their hiding place. Write about them. Talk about them. Sing about them. Meditate on them. Feel them fully. They cannot hurt you.
Do whatever you need to do to witness them. Notice them. Give them the attention that they need. Stop running from them. Heal them.
When we no longer need to prove ourselves, we can do what we love. We are free to be our truest selves.
Author: Brandilyn Tebo
Image: @brandilyntebo on Instagram
Editor: Toby Israel