“I spend an insane amount of time wondering if I’m doing it right. At some point I just remind myself that I’m doing my best. That is enough.” ~Myleik Teele
Just one more client. Just one more call. Just one more. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Then, maybe, just maybe, I will feel validated. Worthy. Appreciated.
That’s how success works, right? Everyone has to like you, think you’re amazing, and recognize all of your hard work for you to be successful? I learned the hard way that this is the path to overwhelm, burnout, and a massive anxiety disorder. Because, you have to grind it out for that business; forget your physical, emotional, and mental health.
Let’s not scapegoat my business, however; my lack of self-worth started years, decades even before I opened my former company.
As the oldest of three, I was expected to achieve.
In middle school, I played competitively on an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball team. I remember never feeling good enough, tying my self-worth up in what my coach thought of me, if our team won or not, or if I scored a certain number of points. Something I loved became something I despised.
Playing basketball in high school left me feeling empty and like fraud. If I wasn’t the best, who was I? The performative pressure was suffocating.
The overachiever in me was never satisfied, never okay with mediocre.
In high school, I took the SAT three times to earn the scholarship I needed to pay for most of my education. I got into the top state schools and even some private colleges. I couldn’t apply to just one. I had to apply to just one more.
With each letter of acceptance, I felt validated. Like I actually belonged and that my life held meaning. Maybe then, when I got into my dream school, I would be worthy, and all of this anxiety would be worth it.
“Where are you going in the fall”? I remember not knowing how to answer that question.
Wanting to go to college and actually going were two very different things.
My parents sent me to a private college prep school, where we were practically reading through course catalogs freshman year. I thought it was something that was next in the sequence of achievements.
On the way home from a college tour in the spring, my mom told me I had to pay for room and board. I just had to figure out how. I ended up staying in my hometown and going to community college, which was a blow to my eighteen-year-old ego. I was devastated, angry with my parents, and frustrated about all the hard work I had put in with nothing to show for it.
My self-worth was in the tank; my need to prove myself was at an all-time high. So was that constant, chirping companion, anxiety.
After two years of community college, I transferred to a state college and chose education as my major. I wanted to be a leader, a catalyst for change, a visionary. I made the Dean’s list, worked my way through college, and even got married.
After I graduated, I taught physical education and was also athletic director of a grade school. I believed that by using my degree I worked so hard for, I would finally be happy and fulfilled. Instead, the position came with a principal who gaslit and bullied me daily, at the time taking away any joy that I had in my chosen field. But I had worked so hard for this. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Working hard was always a badge of honor I wore proudly; more accolades from others to put into the validation tank. All the while, I never felt worthy. As the things I’d worked so hard for were taken away from me, I began to wonder if success was even in the cards.
I felt lost. Undeserving. I was focused on my first year of marriage, teaching, and working on extended family relationships. Would I ever be accepted?
If I tried hard enough, they would like me, the overachiever in me believed.
But wait, was I really an overachiever? Maybe it was something deeper?
Was I just addicted to working hard because I was trying to prove my worth and gain approval?
With a full-blown anxiety disorder, depression, a drinking problem, and zero boundaries, I entered my thirties thinking that if I just made it in business, I would be whole.
What a crock.
The patriarchal standards I had tried to measure up to, were the same ones holding me back from living a life of peace. If I just, “hustled,” and “grinded,” despite the effects on my mental, emotional, and physical health, I could finally prove my worth. All that ended up proving was that mental health matters. My work is not my worthiness.
So how did I go from codependent thinking and seeking validation outside of myself to understanding that we are all born worthy?
First, I had to decide what really lights me up like a firecracker. Passion, playfulness, and purpose are lost when you were trained to look outside yourself for validation.
I’d spent my life focused on achievement. What did “success” even mean? It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I realized success, to me, means freedom, and freedom meant letting go.
I had to then get radically honest with myself about my upbringing, my relationships with family members, my belief system, and what I wanted out of life.
Did I really want to run the service-based business I’d started after I quit my teaching job, with several employees, ongoing calls and emails, that had me working holidays, nights, and weekends, and that left me in a people-pleasing tailspin on a regular basis?
My honest answer: No.
Relief washed over me. Not regret, longing, or sadness.
I then realized I needed to let go of people-pleasing, overachieving, and the need for external validation in other aspects of my life, which meant doing some radical boundary setting and self-reflection.
Looking back through my years of wearing my hard work in school as a badge of honor, drowning in my former business like a sacrificial lamb, and navigating the sometimes-chaotic waters of a new marriage and family, I can finally understand that my worthiness doesn’t come from others. I am good enough as I am. My oneness comes from within, not from outside accolades.
Getting to the root cause of the unworthiness, worry, and workaholism was a deep dive into my childhood and young adulthood. I realized I carried toxic shame and guilt and believed that if I was just “enough,” I would be able to finally be free.
Turns out, the complete opposite is true. Chasing becomes all-encompassing. I had been treading water; doggie-paddling, not knowing that the pool of people-pleasing I was swimming in was keeping me stuck.
These days, creating takes the place of hard work, clarity takes the place of drinking to cope, and self-compassion takes the place of validation-seeking to prove my worth. And that toxic friend named Anxiety? She still likes to show up unannounced, but I have the self-acceptance and healthy internal dialogue to keep our interactions short.
Take it from this former overachiever: You are worth more than your work and your accomplishments. Just one more client? Just one more call? Not anymore. Now I just choose freedom.
About Nicole Ryan
Nicole Ryan is a mental health advocate, entrepreneur, and boundary-setting coach helping others to thrive in business and in life. As an educator and business owner, she took her experience teaching physical education and as an athletic director to transform lives of her coaching clients as they implement boundaries and overcome people pleasing. Click here for her Setting Boundaries Start Up Guide.