Highly-intelligent, highly-motivated high achievers are breaking down and it doesn’t have to be that way. These people have adapted to turn a blind eye to their physical and mental well-being. Often unconscious decisions, and the “unconscious drivers” (ancient familial dos and don’ts) which have led them to success are secretly tearing them apart.
Consistent practice of self-awareness underpinned by kindness to self and self-care can stop this behaviour. I have seen this work with people in the most powerful of roles. The most intelligent minds miss the basic need for things to sustain them, but those same intelligent minds can be employed in self-care too.
The secret codes of belief that have been adopted include:
1) Stiff upper lip culture is the only alternative to self pity;
2) Burnout at the top is normal;
3) Caring for mental health is unnecessary and weak;
4) Kindness to self is self worship and leads to arrogance;
5) There is no alternative to corporate stress.
Our stiff upper lip culture is dangerously archaic. We carry on regardless through fear of not being good enough; fear of humiliation; and ironically, fear of weakening. Fear, however, is not a state within which to live, it is a feeling, and feelings don’t last. Fear cannot be a motivator over a long period. In the short term it can be, but long-term disregard of mental health causes persistent releasing of adrenalin and cortisol, creating a highly-stressed state.
Ignorance of the care of the inner self leads to anxiety, depression, substance misuse, trauma and sometimes complete breakdown. Persistent release of stress hormones causes many symptoms high achievers assimilate as normal. This is what I call “corporate captivity” – the chronic entrapment and denial of self-care that furrows a path to chronic slow-to-build trauma. When we ignore or turn our back on it, we normalise it. Some of our very best thinkers and doers who are “disappeared” from roles have been slowly breaking down for months and even years.
The insidious growth of our “carry on regardless” culture has led to many traumatic breakdowns being misdiagnosed as burnout. High achievers are particularly susceptible to this as they are familiar with living in a state of internal pressure. Our high achievers are used to living at their “wit’s end” and once they have done so, it feels like there is no alternative. In fact, often anything else is considered less challenging, less stimulating. This, however, is a delusion – one I support many in reassessing so that the person can extend themselves within a powerful role but with a robust self-care framework, avoiding complete breakdown.
It’s not just lonely at the top, it’s anxiety provoking, and can cause a chronic secret sickness. Back-breaking responsibility on a daily basis is numbed by caffeine, alcohol, prescription medication, gambling, food and drugs. High achievers are natural adapters, they feel the pressure, and they respond to the problem – and that is right and proper if it is sustainable. For many, it is not, and they reach for unhealthy “antidotes” to the rigours of their role which cause further stress and weakens them – the very state that they have tried to avoid.
Consistently denying your body and mind’s need for consideration and care makes you vulnerable to traumatic breakdown. I see the results of the stiff upper lip lifestyle every day. Having lost the six-figure salary or multi-millions, there were always early signs of nearing and then overwhelming the limit of what was possible to sustain.
• Feeling full up, dizzy;
• Missing lunch, choosing fluids because they’re quicker;
• Intrusive thoughts of walking away;
• Fleeting thoughts of ending your life;
• Anxiety, shortness of breath, struggling to take a deep breath;
• Depressive thoughts;
• Feelings of suffocation, seeing no way out;
• Imagining your demise;
• Consistent difficulty with concentrating;
• Short-term memory loss;
• Binge drinking and binge eating;
• Being quick to anger, making angry outbursts;
• Insomnia (early hour wakening);
• Trembling for no apparent reason;
• Loss of appetite;
• Self harming, brutal thoughts, biting, stabbing, hitting self.
These early symptoms cause mild discomfort at first but if ignored grow to make once minor irritations feel insurmountable. A common cold, a needy family member, your car’s MOT, your PA’s mistake, an ill pet, all generate disproportionate stress as they are interpreted as “yet another thing to attend to”. The irritation, and often rage, is your clearest sign that someone could be experiencing a “slow-to-build” traumatic break of their resources. They may also be vulnerable to complete breakdown if the pressure remains.
Trauma comes in two guises: a single one-off overwhelming event or a slow build-up of stresses which finally engulfs a person’s resources. Of those who have completely broken down, there is not a single person – whether they have a staff of several thousand or a dozen – where there were no early signs. The internal mechanism of self-care is disinvested in long before the final breakdown.
Often by the time I meet these CEOs, lawyers, doctors, surgeons, sports personalities, they have lost every single marker to their life, and they simply do not know how to live. It does not have to be this way.
Practicing an archaic culture of “austerity to the self”, an internal penal system if you like, over years became assumed practice and is now a well-laid cultural convention – individual neurology and habit have become imprinted and adopted. It’s what I call the assimilation of burnout.
It is not normal (even in the broadest sense of normal) to extend a human being’s limits to the point of breaking. Burnout is not an individual’s inability to manage stress, it is a culture’s inability to manage the meaning and causes of stress and the crude application of reward for those who join in the culture of unwillingness to accept human limitation. If there were no limitations to humans’ stress; trauma and post-traumatic stress would not exist. These frequently-experienced conditions only exist because every human being that lives and has ever lived has a limit to what they can withstand. To propose otherwise is naive and dangerous. The assimilation of burnout in our culture can be reversed.
All lack of choice is internalised as entrapment. Entrapment is a crucial feature of any chronic traumatic state. Every reader will know someone if not themselves who they feel is bowing under stress and feels trapped. Choosing self-care, and establishing an internal environment of kindness, will give some control and responsibility for health, mental health, inner and external wealth.
We have a responsibility to act with due regard for self, and then cultivate an atmosphere of due regard for all. Even within the most brutal corporate environment we can endeavour to make a private internal relationship with ourselves and make an impression on what we believe to be unimpressionable.
Self-care is how to look after yourself when you feel dreadful and feel you can’t or don’t want to care about yourself. One of the most common reactions to turmoil is to stop being able to or desiring to look after yourself. The experience of being shunted into an agonising world of anxiety, depression, fear and neurological symptoms often prompts a turning against our selves. It often comes from a feeling that people feel frustrated with themselves for not being able to shake themselves out of it and overcome it.
So how should daily self-care be practiced?
• Have compassion for what you’re going through.
• Make time to have lunch, schedule it in the diary.
• Use meditation, put an app on your phone.
• Change your internal dialogue from cruelty to kindness.
• Breathe, take several deep breaths at intervals throughout the day.
• Rest if you can’t sleep.
• Be aware of the early signs and don’t ignore yourself.
• Choose a healthy antidote – walking, jogging, visiting the gym, listening to music.
• Get professional support, don’t wait until it’s too late.
The intellectual rigour of high achievers can be mobilised to transform our culture. Individual high achievers can take better care of their well-being, and therefore their career, their livelihoods, their family’s livelihood.
Self-compassion and care is a responsibility. If adopted as such, we would realise that the corporate world will not implode if people commit to eating a chewable lunch. It sounds flippant, but the message is serious. I have spent hundreds of hours with incredible high-achieving people who lost everything they knew (and had built) in one overwhelming moment.
This is not a sophisticated foundation upon which anyone can truly maintain their best. And of course it is self-perpetuating, as we are shown the breakdown of other CEOs, demonstrating to us all how precarious we are, and more significantly, how we might be treated if we were to show any weakness or vulnerability.
What a terrible irony to enforce corporate captivity to the point of the breaking of our top minds, our top achievers and investors. We do not expect our financial portfolio to be treated with the same disregard. Would our investment portfolio be treated with a carry on regardless attitude? No, we would look after it, and take stock and consider, and care and change based on our considerations – and we would heed our findings and carry on with due regard.
One can only carry on without due regard until a limit is reached, and I urge the visionaries, the leaders, the powerhouses of our industry to step back and care and consider their daily experience, before their brain and body does it for them. Turning a blind eye to early warning signs will subtly weaken their celebrated resilience and will form a template that will ensure a dramatic breakage in mental and physical health.
Cultivating an internal dialogue of kindness is the antidote to corporate stress and breakdown. Though this may seem trivial, its beauty is in its simplicity.
Anna Pinkerton BAHons PGDip DipPW TIRCouns EMDRII MBACP HCPC is a therapist, coach, speaker and author of How to Smile Again: Recovery for those in public life but in private pain, annapinkerton.com. economia readers receive a £5 discount at howtosmileagain.com using promocode “smileagain”