The Gordian knot of identity and achievement

“Stress is a perverted relationship to time.” These words from the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue are truthfully incisive.

And whether it’s using Text Expanders or doing Tabata Burpee workouts – I’ve always been in the hot pursuit of more time.

The chase is straight forward. More free time equals more time to do stuff. Doing more stuff means notching more income, subscribers, accoladesand achievements.

The result is a deep intertwining of identity and achievement. A terrifying twosome that leads to FOMO, burnout, and anxiety.

Separating identity from achievement is an involved problem: untangling a Gordian Knot.

Now this ain’t a knock on striving. We’ve all stared for hours at that seemingly intractable problem – then experienced the bliss of discovering the elusive solution.

Applying your skills to your craft brings a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. As the poet David Whyte writes in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage:

Good work, done well, for the right reasons.

But we get tripped up by “for the right reasons” when we integrate our sense of self-worth with our identity.

Like the stock market, accomplishments ebb and flow. They come and go. You may be able to control the inputs (a la Trust the Process); but the outputs are subject to a high degree of randomness. Pegging our identity this noisy stochastic process can heap unnecessary suffering into our lives

Is self-love conditional?

But there’s something even more pernicious at play. Would you ever tell your child “I’ll only love you if you get into straight As?” Would you ever tell your BFF “I’ll only be your homie if you get promoted to partner?”

If that sounds silly, consider the preconditions you set for loving yourself.

How do you talk to yourself when your striving falls short? Or when you botch a big presentation? In one of his most famous posts, Seth Godin rhetorically asks who is the world’s worst boss?

His answer: It’s you. Why? Says Godin:

If you had a manager that talked to you the way you talked to you, you’d quit.

Untangling the Gordian Knot of identity and achievement means dropping the construct of conditional love for ourselves. In Shirzad Chamine’s wonderful book Positive Intelligence he writes:

The most damaging lie is that we are not worthy of love or respect by just being who we are. Instead, it forces us to constantly perform; this forms the construct of “conditional love.” But conditional love is not real love.

Chamine offers a nostalgic recommendation to “shift your brain” to feel empathy and caring for yourself:

Visualize yourself as a child in a setting where your essence is shining through. Perhaps you are holding a puppy, building a sandcastle, chasing a bunny, or snuggling with a loved one. Put that picture on your desk or on your phone or computer so that you see it frequently. This image will be a reminder that your true essence is worthy of unconditional caring and empathy when you are feeling beaten down by yourself, others, or the troubles of life.

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