Maia Miller Lewis tackles the ongoing pressure to achieve and the difficulties of unwinding. For Issue #18 ‘Rising’.
Ambition is an expedited, strange sensation. It pushes you to take every possible opportunity in the hope that it will somehow enable your future goals or at least direct you towards what they should be. At the same time, it is overwhelmingly stressful. It can wake you up in the middle of the night, inducing stress about something which may seem insignificant to others, but to you can be equated to the end of the world, or at least your immediate present. Often, it can make you falter on the very tasks and opportunities you have accepted in the pursuit of whatever aim you are striving for.
Accelerated aspiration also has a problem with perfection. When you take on multiple projects at once, inevitably, they won’t all be impeccable. There is simply not enough time in the day to perfectly fulfil your own expectations and the expectations you perceive others place upon you. Striving to avoid this reality can drive you to exhaustion, cause you to deprive yourself of food, sleep or social activities. This deprivation can be conscious or unconscious; aimed at ensuring you meet a deadline, or that you punish yourself for your self-imposed sins.
At the end of the day, we are all human. We want to be loved, appreciated and, if we are honest, admired. I have certainly been that person stood in the corner of a busy room, looking at the person in the centre receiving the attention or accolade. It does not always come from a place of jealousy, motivated by questions around the theme of ‘what makes them special’. It is more an envy of composure, a niggling anxiety that causes you to question what you have done wrong, or rather, what is wrong with you that has meant you are not that person.
Yet, what we neglect to acknowledge in these situations is that we are just seeing the surface; other people’s façades. We have no idea what is going on underneath that gleaming smile or apparent endless calm confidence. Inside, they may be a bubbling pot of emotion, primed to spill over at any time. On the other hand, they may simply be very lucky, having already found the one thing they are really good at which motivates them to go through trials and tribulations to get their desired outcome.
Nevertheless, in that moment, we are not rational animals. I often wonder how people can do so many different things at once and still do a brilliant job. I can no longer count the number of times I have looked on with longing confusion at friends who juggle a million and one activities and still stay happy, healthy and sane.
If you are expecting me to jump out of a metaphorical cake and announce my marvellous realisation of how these people do it, I’m sorry – I have still not figured it out. All I have done is tried and tried to be like those people, taking on things that, quite frankly, I have no real interest in. But somehow, I have managed to convince myself that I need to do them to feel fulfilled. It is a pernicious state of mind, but it is not unique. Indeed, people have developed a variety of different coping mechanisms to deal with their feelings of inadequacy. Some retreat inwards, absolve themselves of all responsibility so as to avoid the weight of let-down expectations. Some charge ahead convinced that they must carry on even if it is making them unhappy because that is the only way to achieve greatness.
The only thing I think any of us struggling with this quandary can hope to find is a happy medium. My friend summed it up perfectly for me the other day during a complexly profound, innocuous conversation. I was detailing to her how stressed I was feeling about the fact that I did not have anything to do at the weekend, how the long, two-day expanse was causing me to go deep into the recesses of my mind and question my life plan. Looking at me with a sense of amused confusion, she queried as to why I could not simply just bumble around, enjoy the time and space I was to be afforded by having nothing to do. I think without knowing it, she had struck gold. Because that’s the point. Society is so obsessed with doing and being seen to be doing whatever it is, we do not let ourselves simply be. I cannot remember the last time I sat down to read a book for more than twenty minutes, or simply sat in bed and watched a film without the burrowing sensation of a guilt worm in my head.
We constantly talk about self-care, but even that is a loaded term. What is self-care if not another self-imposed practice, enabling us to do more, to seek the next star and jump the next hurdle. When, and more importantly why, did peace become something we have to actively carve out, allow ourselves to enjoy without remorse? From conversations I have had around this theme, the only conclusion I have come to is that the ability to let go of ambition and quietly let ourselves be in the present is something that, ironically, we have to train ourselves to do. It may appear to come naturally to some, floating day to day in an apparent serine manner. For most of us, however, plugged into the social mainframe 24/7, buzzing with anxiety and stress, it can seem like an altogether impossible task. So, give yourself some time. Be kind to the person inside your head and try to understand the complex concoction of emotions pushing you to be ‘better’. Because I think that at the crux of it all, everyone is fundamentally scared of slowing down, and that is okay. But ultimately, the only one who is going to turn off the mental treadmill is you.
Artwork by Nia Jones.