Growing up as a high-achieving Asian, much of my confidence came from the accolades, and the praise my parents, teachers, and peers gave me for coming in first in the class, competition, etc. Before I realized it, my identity and self-esteem were tied to my accomplishments. My very well-intentioned mom pushed me to not only always try my best, but to outdo myself. She wanted me to always be improving. From people’s reactions and the heady rush of praise, I learned early on that attention, acceptance, and love were bought with achievements–grades in school, wealth, beauty, and sports performance. This achievement-for-love paradigm soon morphed into a vicious cycle–an addiction because unfortunately, I, like every other human being, have an innate and constant need for acceptance, love, and attention.
How endlessly can you work to surpass yourself? I remember feeling the weight of expectations starting from third grade! That pressure doesn’t necessarily come from other people, but myself. When the bar is set high, outdoing yourself every time eventually becomes impossible and very unhealthy. Our bodies and time are both limited. The macroeconomics of your industry will change beyond your control. Everyone will eventually become weaker, slower, uglier, and heavier. Your identity and self-worth deserve to be based on something less transient.
At work, I used to manage product development and marketing activities on three continents, and slept with my phone at the bedside, working 15+ hours a day. My body responded with heartburn, Hashimoto’s Disease, an auto-immune disorder, and many other random aches, which all disappeared months after I took a career break. Without the daily grind, I was surprised at how much stuff I bought my children and myself to compensate for all my time at work—stuff that I ended up not having the time to use. During a humanitarian trip to Tijuana, a missionary asked me what I do, and I remember feeling naked, confused, and like a nobody. Who am I, if not the XYZ of an XYZ company, the revenues I generate, and the people I manage? It’s tough not to define yourself by your work if that’s all you do.
That discomfort began my path to discovering myself and creating a more permanent and secure sense of self-worth. What are my core values? What brings me true joy even when nobody is watching? Invest enough of your time and energy into people and things you care about, and most importantly, invest enough time into learning about yourself.
Most people can quickly grasp the value of passive income–money continuing to trickle in without your limited resources in exchange for that income (i.e. When working for a paycheck, you can’t stop if you want to continue to be paid.) Building self-knowledge is like amassing a passive income for your emotional wellness. With self-knowledge, you are more likely to experience lasting joy, live a purposeful life and let go of things that don’t matter. You can’t have true self-acceptance and self-love if you don’t even know who you are.
The next question, is how to gain self-knowledge and permanent, secure self-worth? That’s what propels me at work every day now 🙂 We can aspire to change society’s value system, but the more practical and immediate difference will come from parent education and effective social emotional learning. I work with clinicians of different disciplines, youth, parents, and designers to make developing emotional regulation, and discovering ourselves fun and rewarding so that people stay on this most difficult but important journey of their lives.