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Here’s a common exchange:
Person A: How’s it going?
Person B: I’m SO busy. You know how it is.
Person A: Yeah, it’s insane.
Person B: Well, I guess it’s better to be busy than bored!
Person A: I know, right.
As a high-performing career woman, you may be able to identify. Our 24/7 culture has heightened the feeling for everyone – women in particular – to perform at high levels of competence in many roles. But along the way, you’re often setting aside your own interests and well-being.
Knowing this, I recently interviewed 40 high-performing women to talk about the challenges they’ve faced to achieve work-life fulfillment and happiness. An impressive group, more than 60% of them held advanced degrees and snazzy titles that ranged from managers to CEOs. But they were also collectively frustrated and exhausted.
Let’s dive into the five major themes I uncovered while talking with them. Be sure to register for my free webinar where you’ll learn even more about the challenges and gain some useful strategies to solve them.
My interviews confirmed that when in a cycle of “go, go, go,” highly driven women get attached to the satisfaction of their careers. Focused on obligations to others, they can say, “I’m busy, therefore I’m needed, important and valued.”
They reported feeling added pressure to “show their hustle.” That’s why many of them work through meal breaks, come in even when they’re sick, and send late night and early morning emails. The desire to stay ever connected to work is domineering.
This tendency is called the Badge of Busy. And for high-performing women, the adrenaline hits they get through their career achievements and successes are like crack. The workplace provides a steady supply of opportunities to get that next high: There’s always one more email to answer, yet another meeting to attend or, another hour (or more!) of work to be done. It feels great to be good at what you do.
Yet while they take pride in their achievements, these top performers rarely stop to enjoy the bounties of their hard work. Sadly, by not prioritizing themselves, some even delay developing meaningful relationships and starting families.
Of the women I interviewed, 66% expressed a strong desire to have a family. Yet most of them were in their late 30s or early 40s, and were just waking up to this realization.
Stacey, 39, no children: “I use my busyness to numb the feelings of vulnerability that accompany the unsettling truths about my life. Now there is a real biological impact on having kids. At times it feels like I’m making dating choices based on availability, scarcity and a sense of urgency.”
Tiffany, 41, single, no kids, wants to have a family: “Work is so easy to get immersed in. It’s very rewarding and I get to exercise a lot of control in my career. Relationships, on the other hand, are complex and uncertain. Plus, I feel less in control when there is another person in the equation. For years I unconsciously didn’t prioritize relationships, and was just always on the grind at work.”
That need for control brings us to the second biggest challenge that high-performing women face.
The interviewees set extremely high standards for themselves. As high performers, they wear many hats: employee, supervisor, friend, daughter, wife, mom, volunteer, dog walker, etc. Their inclination to want to wear each of them very well, means they struggle to “do it all.”
As a result, these women find it difficult to trust and delegate. They set unrealistically high standards that require them to maintain a strong sense of control. Because they feel they can’t rely on others to do a task as well as they can, many of them habitually take on roles that put others first.
Cathy, 37, “I can do it better. I don’t trust my husband to do simple tasks like make the kids’ lunch or do my daughter’s hair, so forget letting him conduct the nanny search and interviews. He just won’t do it right.”
Which brings us to the third biggest challenge successful, high-performing women face.
Women are taught from an early age that being selfless is a good thing. Yet sometimes being ever productive and generous with your time, can be taken to an extreme and you forego your own needs.
In my interviews, I found repeatedly that these highly driven, ambitious women were devoting so much of their time and energy to their career and everyone else first, that they often were left depleted with nothing left to give to themselves.
They said yes:
Too many “yes” responses can hurt you and affect your ability to be effective. Many of the interviewees talked about having poor energy, feeling resentment, and criticizing themselves and others because they felt so stretched. Most admitted there still remains a sizeable gap between knowing and actually doing what is best for herself—and everyone else.
While meeting the needs of their employer, children, spouse, aging parents and friends, many high-achieving women find their well-being has fallen by the wayside. That brings us to the fourth greatest challenge.
When life gets busy, self-care is often the first thing to go. It’s no wonder that statistics show that 80% of health and fitness-related resolutions fail by February. Unlike a successful career, a woman’s personal life doesn’t come with recognition, awards, bonuses and accolades. Interviewees reported this lack of “felt-success” is a demotivating challenge for achievement-oriented women to prioritize their well-being.
Neglecting self-care in favor of an always-on lifestyle has both immediate and lasting effects. The women I interviewed were in the prime of their 30s and 40s, yet they reported experiencing anxiety, sexlessness, sleep deprivation, fatigue, headaches, depression, and fertility and reproductive issues.
While some of these health effects are felt and seen in the here and now, another challenge is that many effects of neglecting one’s health go unseen. You don’t actually feel your arteries hardening when you eat the office pastries for breakfast every morning. You can’t really detect your blood pressure gradually increasing because of a lack of exercise.
Yet, science clearly shows that cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for women. Our bodies are not equipped to handle long-term, chronic stress and neglect without cruel consequences.
It’s not news that our health is arguably our greatest asset, but why do so many high-achieving women fail to do what could benefit them? It’s not a simple answer, but one factor I found in my research is the fifth challenge.
At work, most successful, high-achieving women are excellent at solving problems, strategizing, creating a plan of action and troubleshooting on the fly. However, my research indicates these same women struggle mightily to transfer these management skills to their personal lives, especially for themselves.
Myra, 35: “I’m good at managing change and transitions at work, but not so much in my personal life.”
Casey, 34: “When I fall off the rails, it’s because I lack structure and goals. I do better when I have a plan to follow. I know it helps my success, but I totally drop the ball on this when it comes to myself.”
For most of the interviewees, the goals, systems of efficiency, and contingency planning that propelled their thriving careers are absent when it applied to their personal time.
This absence of structure only compounds their self-neglect when they encounter disruptions such as travel. Not having habits and systems in place make them more likely to “fall off the wagon” and less likely to consistently practice healthy self-care.
Further, as goal-oriented women, their motivation wanes when they don’t have clear objectives and aims for their personal lives. That’s when they look elsewhere, such as to their careers or their children, to meet their need for achievement.
The “do more, do everything, and do it very well” approach is not working — it’s a toxic trap. In a desire to do more and be more, women are pushing their limits. It’s not worth it. They feel guilty for not accomplishing everything they think they truly wanted. And they are exhausted.
The good news is you have a choice to not live this way. Be sure to register for my free webinar where you’ll learn even more about the challenges and gain some useful strategies to solve them.
Gigi Gibbs, MPH is a CHES-certified coach, speaker and public health advocate. For nearly twenty years she has empowered people to live healthier, happier, and more balanced lives. Gigi has worked with entrepreneurs, artists/entertainers, business executives, moms, and individuals who want to live and feel better. Her work now focuses on helping high achieving professional women transform their relationship with work and life demands so they can be the best version of themselves.
Gigi earned her Masters of Public Health with a concentration in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention from UCLA and her Business degree in Finance with a minor in Kinesiology & Nutrition from USC with honors. A lifelong athlete and decorated veteran, Gigi got started in wellness when she served as a nutritionist and culinarian.
When she is not helping clients, Gigi loves being in nature, practicing yin yoga, going to the spa, and spending time with her husband and son. For more information, visit https://www.gigigibbs.com/