Self-Care Sucks: Confessions of an Overachiever

by | May 20, 2015 | Defining Success | 23 comments

Maybe it was because an awful lot of family members died before I’d even graduated from college.

Or maybe I believed my anxiety was really some sort of sixth sense.

But I always suspected I would die young.

So when my doctor asked me to schedule a follow-up in person right away, I knew my test results must have been fairly serious. I felt both scared and vindicated.

Prior to that appointment, I would have rated my health as outstanding. I rarely get colds, I’m moderately active (thanks to not having a car), and I sleep and eat pretty well. There were no obvious signs that my health was suffering.

So what was I doing at the doctor’s office in the first place?

I had just interviewed a rising star in the field of bioengineering for my book on overachievers. Over the course of that interview, he told me some pretty shocking things.

He admitted he hadn’t been to the dentist in six years. And although he’d been quite the athlete in school, he hadn’t been to the gym in years either. Instead, he found himself in the emergency room for extreme exhaustion and anxiety.

Then came the real jaw-dropper: he’d scheduled our interview for the day after his wedding.

It would have been easy to judge his actions and think, “Whoa. That’s intense. And nuts.” But instead, I chose to do something far more productive.

I asked myself if my own level of self-care was where it should be.

And of course it wasn’t. Yours probably isn’t either.

So why is self-care so hard to commit to? It turns out the follow-up with my doctor provided some interesting answers.

Do or die

Back when I was in the military, all my preventative care was mandated. I took care of myself because the military said I had to.

Since leaving the military, I’ve prioritized working on my emotional health. Channeling my overachiever nature in more healthy ways, and understanding what really drove some of my ambitions, has been life changing. People often ask me, “How do you manage to be so happy all the time?”

But when I looked at my current to-do list, many of my physical health related tasks languished at the bottom of the list. Some other goal always took precedence. That seemed like a perfectly fine trade-off when there wasn’t anything wrong with me and there was always something that needed improving in my business.

But I saw exactly how easy it would be to let that kind of thinking take over my life. The tale of the engineer could be my own in a few years if I wasn’t careful.

So I scheduled every appointment I thought beneficial, from the doctor and dentist to a physical trainer.

And that’s how I found out I had diabetes.

The statistics are grim. Diabetes is listed as the seventh leading cause of death in America, but that statistic only includes those who had the disease listed on their death certificate. If you count those who died of complications, which are far more common, then diabetes actually becomes the leading cause of death. According to recent studies, blood glucose levels are a far better predictor of heart attack risk than cholesterol levels.

And don’t even get me started on the possibility of amputation or blindness.

As you might expect, I was pretty low for a while. I thought about all that might get cut short: watching my daughter go to her first prom, my silver wedding anniversary, all the books I want to write. Instead of watching my life flash before my eyes like in a car crash, I spent about a week imagining what might never be.

I decided I have a lot in life worth fighting for. I wasn’t going to give up so easily.

Then again, hadn’t I said that before?

The gift of tragedy

It was tempting to make diabetes the enemy and to wage a war against it. But if I’m being honest, I have seen the enemy and the enemy is me. Diabetes runs in my family, so it’s not like I didn’t know the precautions I should have been taking.

You may not have the same kind of health concerns I do, but my guess is that you aren’t engaging in the kind of self-care you could and should be either. Here are two possible reasons why:

1. We think we’ll take care of ourselves because it’s in our best interest to do so. But this neglects all the powerful forces that entice us to pursue other ideals. Do I want to be healthy? Sure, but I want to be a lot of things: an entrepreneur, a great mom, a writer. Because it’s accepted that all those things take hard work, whereas our health is easy to take for granted, which ambition wins? In fact, the biggest habit I had to break was telling myself I somehow deserved things that were unhealthy as compensation for the self-induced stress in my life.

2. We mistake self-care for fun. It’s tempting to believe I’ll make time to work out or relax when I need to because those activities make you feel good. But so does eating half a carton of cookies (at least temporarily) or playing video games. The fact is, an awful lot of self-care isn’t particularly fun, or at least isn’t as fun as some of the alternatives.

For most of us, “being healthy” apparently isn’t a good enough reason to do what we know we need to. We need a bigger why.

Perhaps this is what the warnings about the pursuit of happiness are all about. If you want to hold onto happy, you also have to be willing to shoulder responsibility.

We tell ourselves that being healthy requires a discipline and willpower we don’t have, but that’s not true.

Parents don’t neglect to feed their kid breakfast simply because they don’t feel like making it. Most people brush their teeth twice a day, even when they’re swamped at work.

Does self-care require planning and effort? Yes it does. But so do our other commitments.

Does self-care occasionally require you to be brave and stand up for your own needs in the face of external requirements? Yes, but so does success in every other aspect of your life.

Does self-care take time away from other important activities? Sure. Life is all about trade-offs.

These are all excuses–and I’m done with them. These days, I frame my health and well-being as a duty and obligation. It turns out that, as an overachiever, duty is a lot easier for me to stay committed to than the general idea of health, as good as that idea is.

In personal development circles, we talk about how we are all capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. That’s as true for taking care of yourself as it is for your personal success. In fact, one will almost certainly enhance the other.

As I like to say, don’t just think bigger, think better.

You deserve it.