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A New Female Epidemic: The Burden of Greatness

There is a noisy revolution going on in our heads as we obsessively pursue our next great accomplishment. Is this freedom?
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When artists create masterpieces and bestsellers, they feel an unrealistic expectation to repeat the miraculous. The same is true for many high-achieving women.

This obsessive pursuit can lead to great accomplishments. It can also lead to frustration, exhaustion and a disconnection from ourselves and our emotions. No doubt this has an effect on our relationships as well.

Elena Kagan's nomination stirred up a lot of discussion on what women must give up if they want a big career. I have found in my research for my book Wander Woman and from my experience coaching ambitious women, that some have families and some do not. I don't think forgoing a family is a requisite for female success.

However, I do find an increasing number of women giving up their peace of mind.

The problem started about 50 years ago when it became important to bring up girls with the notion that they could accomplish anything they put their minds to. To compensate for centuries of holding women back, the message hit girls with a vengeance.

Now there is a quiet revolution going on as women gain more intellectual power, financial self-sufficiency and authority in the business world. At the same time, there is a noisy revolution going on in our heads as we obsessively pursue our next great accomplishment. Is this freedom?

I have come to call this phenomenon the "Burden of Greatness."

It is wonderful believing in our greatness. But having the goal of "being great" is as hard to define as it is to achieve. There is always "the next great thing" to master. As a result, we are always looking for the elusive "something more" to direct our life, which leaves us feeling restless and incomplete.

This restlessness, along with the drive to excel, either shuts down our emotions or we channel them toward our chosen goals. Instead of experiencing the fullness of life, we live in a frenzy of email, chores and to-do lists. We obsess about what we need to do differently in the future and in idle moments we play the "if only" game with the past.

If you recognize the Burden in yourself, it is likely your gifts of intelligence, resourcefulness, courage and determination have also been a burden. Some days you wonder if it is all worth it. If you have children, you feel guilty for not spending more time with them. You hunger for a day of rest and long for a chance to pamper your body. You laugh when someone suggests you need life balance. The best you can do is balance your energy as you go about your busy day. You can still love your friends, your partner and your children, but you know there will always be an internal struggle about how you show your love.

For two decades, I willingly sacrificed my life for my work. I had important things to accomplish. Everyone in my life should have understood this. Consequently, I didn't develop any deep friendships and my marriage failed after five years.

At the age of 40, people saw my home, my cars and my possessions and defined me as a successful, brilliant woman. They did not see that I was numb when working, bored when on vacation, and barely existing beyond fatigue.

I have spent the last 15 years waking up my senses. On good days, I choose my work based on what I have defined as my purpose and say "no" to everything else. When I am buried under a to-do list, I prioritize and let some things go with no guilt. My exercise and fun time can't be compromised. These are the good days.

I have to make decisions to live like this every day, sometimes every hour, so the old days don't creep back in.

In order to get some control over my life, I had to explore the dark side of my inheritance of excellence by asking myself some very difficult questions. When I find myself working too hard and filling in my free time with tasks or planning, I ask myself:

Who would I be if I were to stop everything and give voice to my heart? What have I imprisoned that wants to be free?

Would I cease to exist if I didn't do everything? Who will I then be?

Is there a way to enjoy my restless rumblings without sacrificing love and peace of mind?

These questions, and others like them, have initiated powerful discussions for my clients as well as for me.

In Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler wisely told Scarlett, "Until you've lost your reputation, you never realize what a burden it was or what freedom really is."

The quicker you admit to carrying a burden of greatness, the sooner you can have some peace of mind.

You can still search for something more, but do it for the joy of what life has to offer than for the need for recognition. You might find some amazing aspects of yourself you can now explore and express. And you might even find that your family and dear friends will join you on your journey.