Never Enough - The Damaging Narrative that Fuels Fear, Burnout, Shame and An Unhealthy Way of Living
“Society encourages us to be overworked, overmedicated, overfed, undernourished and terrified. We crave the kind of deep rest we have almost lost. We can and must reclaim it”
- The Seven Laws of Enough
Whether it is in the workplace, in the classroom, on the playing field or even in our own homes there is a constant voice that tells us “you need to do more”, “you need to keep pushing”, “that’s not enough”. On a micro scale, this voice is justified by things like “I need to get into a good college..have a successful job...make it to the pros..” or simply “I need to keep growing and learning”. On a macro scale, values of consumerism, productivity, competition and a desire to continue to move up the ladder that form the bedrock of our American society continue to fuel the fire. Consciously or unconsciously we are fed a narrative that keeps us in this unending loop and we learn to view through a lens of self-deprecation rather than kindness and care.
The message that we are never done, and if we do stop we are unworthy or “less than”, is not only making us as a society miserable, but it is causing damage to our physical, mental and emotional health. And while the pandemic has in some ways prompted people to take a pause and consider what they truly value vs. where they are actually putting their time and energy -- work, family, leisure, rest -- we still have much more work to do in actively constructing a more healthy and life-giving mindset.
Don’t get me wrong, I always was, and in some ways still am, a big supporter of pushing your limits and having a relentless dedication to work that you find meaningful. I still exhaust myself when I get on the track and want to have a killer workout, or when I am preparing myself to pitch my program. But I’m beginning to see where the line is between going hard to challenge myself, and allowing external standards to drive me into the ground. I have lived much of my life believing that I constantly need to do more to prove myself, to be better, to excel. I took pride in pushing through the pain and I still, to this day, am motivated by seeing how far I can push myself until I’m lying flat on the track. Off the track I became so invested in being “growth oriented,” and while I still believe in improvement and finding ways to help yourself evolve, I am learning, slowly, that this is not how we were meant to live. We have neglected the yin and fed the yang to the point of not even knowing what rest, care and self-compassion looks like and what it could mean for us if we tapped into these areas.
I’m not perfect in all of these, but I am also doing my best to:
Understand that there is a point of enough is enough, and “I am enough”
Recognize that un-learning and re-learning is a long and oftentimes very difficult process and it will take some time to adjust my thinking and behaviors. And even when I do feel like I’ve figured it all out, there will still be setbacks.
Share what I see is happening in all facets of our society and is causing pain, shame, burnout and stress in millions of peoples lives.
She will always get the job done
Despite not having the greatest memory I have numerous moments from my childhood playing sports that stand out and fill me with competing feelings of admiration and sadness. I think back to doing repeats on my mom’s treadmill in our den, preparing to compete at the finals of the Colgate Women’s Games in Madison Square Garden. We would put it on an incline to be able to hit faster paces. I remember the sliding glass door just inches from me that I would throw open in between reps gasping and longing for the piercing winter air. I would wobble off the treadmill and fall into my moms arms. I was so proud of what I had done but I was also spent. I was 8.
I remember my first injury my sophomore year of high school and the pattern of half recovering and resting, and half trying to get back to running and being there for my team (as well as achieve my own goals), which led to a domino effect of injuries throughout the rest of my high school and much of my college career. A stress fracture my sophomore year of high school was a surprise to me because I had always done pretty low mileage. A few days before our home invitational I was having pain in my pinkie toe. It was enough to have me take a few days off and not be able to run very much that entire week leading up to it (if you knew what I ran through in the past it probably would have surprised you a little bit to know I had to take off). The doctor didn’t see anything on the X-ray and we planned to get an MRI later on but I knew, before my coach or mom even had the chance to say anything, that I would still be racing that Saturday. I also knew my mom and coach wouldn't question this. Not that they didn’t care but they also believed I wanted it and they had seen me run through a lot in the past. And I did want it, right? It’s hard to know when you're that young which comes first, your drive or theirs. So I ran through the pain, then later found out I had run on a stress fracture and finally, called it quits for the season.
While I believe the adults around me always cared and wanted to do what was best for me I also think that they may not have even known what they said really stuck with me and shaped how I saw myself, my training and my success. In fact, most coaches and administrators in sports didn’t know just how impactful a coach's words and actions are on their athletes' sense of self, psychological and mental well-being. I recently found an article detailing my high school training. A quote from my coach jumped out at me as a perfect example of how impressionable young athletes are. At first look, what he says seems, and is, a great compliment, but when you dig a little deeper you can see the unintentional damage it can do. When describing my training he shared “She has exceptional talent, but also an incredible work ethic. It doesn’t matter if she is sick, scraped up, or tired… she will always get the job done.” Pan to my part of the interview about coming back from injury and it’s like an echo chamber “Due to the injury I spent 7 days a week swimming and running in the water for 60-90 minutes to maintain my fitness level. I think I went something like 17 days straight in the water at one point…”
I will always get it done. No matter what. Through hell or high water, pain, anxiety, sadness, injury, good times, tough times Brianna would show up and push through. - That is the message I heard and still hear. It takes a lot of effort and a strong sense of self to pull out the good from that statement and let go of the bad.
And I agree with my coach in regard to the work ethic. Since I was a year old my mom described me as strong willed and very tough. I do believe some traits are innate and just in our nature, but I can't help but think that I was also in an environment that nurtured this “tough shell” “go-go-go” attitude, which intentionally or unintentionally also devalued rest, recovery and self-care.
College heightened my awareness of this issue of “enoughness” and of constantly being on even when you knew you were close to, or at, your breaking point. At an elite institution, especially one of Duke’s reputation, every day you received the message that everyone else around you was either working hard or playing hard -- whatever way you put it there was no REST in that statement. A quick search on Duke’s culture will easily bring up articles on Duke students needing to outdo one another and the high levels of stress and pressure that they are under. It’s interesting though, many students will say that it wasn’t coming from the institution, but rather themselves as an expectation that likely formed in them much earlier in their lives. A 2017 article from the Kenan Institute of Ethics captures exactly what played out during my experience as I would walk through main campus and heard people exclaim how much they had on their plate and how they were going to be in the library all night. The author writes,
“..As Duke students, we love to brag about how much stress we put ourselves through. It is common to hear peers exclaim that they haven’t slept in 3 days, or they spent the past 45.5 hours non stop-studying for their physics midterm. We’ve normalized and even begun to praise these behaviors while simultaneously stigmatizing failure.“
At the same time that I was experiencing this in the academic realm, I also was being told to put all my eggs in my athletics basket. Despite going to the trainer every day when I was feeling pain and getting support, I felt that the expectation and belief was that if we worked on it, patched it up with ice, and took some ibuprofen, that we would be able to keep running through. Our trainers and coaches did their due diligence and I want to be clear that I don’t put the blame on my coaches or trainers, in fact I really appreciated how much they invested and cared for us. I remember getting x-rays and MRIs to get at the root of an issue when it came up, but all the while we would often keep running or xtraining when we were still in pain. Why did we feel like we had to keep going if there was a pain that was persisting? Why were we so focused on how much time we would lose? Why was our first thought, how many workouts would we miss? How come our first instinct wasn’t to say “I hear you, body, I understand that you need more care and rest and that is what I’m going to do.” It was like we wouldn’t allow ourselves to even enter into that thought process. Rest meant falling back. Rest meant weakness. Rest meant we weren’t tough.
I remember the end of my career feeling so upset for not delivering and apologizing to my coach for letting him down. Obviously, he didn’t feel that way about my time at Duke and did not want me to carry that feeling of disappointment. Yet, I still couldn’t erase a feeling of deep sadness and even a twinge of shame that I could not perform, that I couldn't push myself to be better.
The roots of “never enough”
I do want to backtrack though and think about why we have formed these habits and beliefs in the first place. Action without reflection is impossible. Therefore, before we can shift the narrative and change our own mindset we have to think about where these pressures and expectations originated from and how they manifest in our day-to-day. To avoid getting into a history lesson and going too deep into American culture I’ll stick with some main highlights.
The American dream: The myth that hard work always guarantees upward mobility, has for over a century reinforced material success, consumerism, and the exhaustive striving that is necessary to reach this point. Yet, the more we strive, the more we feel we have to strive for more; a never ending cycle in which we are never satisfied.
Capitalism & competition: When the driving force of your economic culture is capital accumulation, private property, competition, exploitation and maximizing efficiency it results in an always-on work culture and the commodification of individuals as just parts in a larger economic machine. When we stop viewing people as human beings we stop caring for their very human needs. In a recent article, journalist Nick Martin highlights that this view has continued through the pandemic when what people need the most is self-care and compassion. He states “this mind-set is the natural endpoint of America’s hustle culture — the idea that every nanosecond of our lives must be commodified and pointed toward profit and self-improvement.” The U.S. is the ONLY country in the Americas without a national paid parental leave benefit and the average is over 12 weeks of paid leave anywhere other than Europe and over 20 weeks in Europe.
Education system: While our learning environments are beginning to transform, our education system is still rooted in a command and control model and strongly tied to economic production. Much of what has informed education policy, standardized testing and a very narrow view of success is an industrial view of education. We are molded by a system that was designed over 200 years ago, a time when products were created in a factory system and came out looking all alike and we often treat our students the same way. If we valued them as human beings, if we cared for all aspects of them (mental, emotional, social etc.) and if we personalized our approaches we would recognize that care and compassion is necessary for healthy development and that constantly needing to do better than the student next to us, get the highest test score and work ourselves to the ground is unnecessary and damaging.
Independence vs. interconnectedness: We have a prevailing allegiance to individualism and pursuing our private satisfactions on our own to achieve personal success and self-fulfillment. We are trained to believe that we are behind others and need to get ahead and win rather than viewing through a lens of uplifting others and community support. And when we think about what it takes for us as individuals to get to the top we often turn away from vulnerability, meaning the last thing we want to do is ask for help, take a break or lean on others.
All of these pervasive narratives bleed into the world of sports and athletics and have placed us (coaches, administrators, leaders in the world of sports) in a fragile position. Sports is a see saw that teeters on serving as a space that is positive and empowering and can support athletes in developing confidence, agency, self-worth all while improving their athletic performance, with an environment that can feel detached, enhance anxiety and and push you to the point of breaking, leaving the sport and struggling with shame. This “always on”, “be tough”, “push through” “do more” manifests in so many ways and doesn’t discriminate. Each athlete experiences it, albeit in different ways. We need to be cognizant of all the ways that it impacts our student-athletes’ experience and be proactive in creating change:
Youth sports have taken a turn for the worse with recent stats indicating that 70 percent of youth drop out of sports before they turn 13, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS). It only takes a few years of increasingly high standards, a lack of enjoyment in the sport and a sole focus on winning to push them away and burn them out.
Body image and Eating Disorders: On every level of the sport we continue to see athletes feel ashamed of how they look and how they compare to others in their sport. Coaches and parents fuel the fire when they make remarks about weight and compare their kids to the other girl/guy on their team. With young women, and especially as a runner (but definitely not limited to runners) the message is the thinner you are the faster. The less weight you have to carry the better. This not only contributes to relentless comparison and the development of eating disorders but can result in more severe health issues that range from loss of period and bone injury to depression and thoughts of suicide.
Vulnerability, Asking for Help and the Stigma attached to Mental Health: We have an instinct in sports that when we are hurting or injured we shouldn’t share and we shouldn’t ask for help. Stopping activity, or vocalizing that you need a break, only indicates weakness and is a message that you are “less than”. Especially when it comes to mental health, which only recently has received more attention in the sports world as being just as important to performance and well-being, we have not created a supportive space for athletes to be okay expressing their emotional and psychological structures without being labeled and stigmatized. Also extremely tied to vulnerability is the idea of hypermasculinity and gender norms in sport, which would fill an entirely separate article.
Short term thinking (work through the pain) vs. long term health (take time to heal): In almost every setting -- youth, 4 years of high school, 4 years of college -- there is a culture of scarcity that drives athletes and coaches to feel like they have to squeeze the most out of you during your short time with them. When we have a scarcity mindset with time, it leads both coaches and athletes to believe that time is of the essence and that it can not be wasted. If conferences are around the corner and you are hobbling on your shin splints but you can still push through and play, you can bet you will be on the field playing because they need you this season. The mindset is not “long term athlete development” and your high school and college coach may not be thinking about how this experience will impact you physically, mentally and emotionally 10 years down the road.
Un-learning, re-learning and transforming
“values of competition and domination are seen to undergird both the activities of the marketplace and the rational moral theories. Philosophers such as American feminist Virginia Held have argued for adopting more compassionate bases for human interaction” - Britannica
These ideals of competition and domination are what cause us to default to attacking and berating ourselves when we perceive ourselves to be inadequate. Kristen Neff shares in her self-compassion workbook “Western culture doesn’t promote self-compassion as a virtue [and] many people harbor deep suspicions about being kind to themselves”. So how do we make this shift? How do we transform from “on all the time”, pushing till we break and not treating ourselves with care, to allowing ourselves time and space to relax and restore and show compassion towards ourselves when we mess up? It must start with an opening up of an undefended self and an inquiry into how things are in relation to how they could be.
Awareness is the first step to recognizing what we were fed all of our lives and how it has impacted our sense of self and well-being. Next, we must acknowledge where we fit into this greater system and recognize that we have choice and agency in our lives to create change. Finally, learning and understanding a new way of being leads to action and transformation of our lived experiences. However, this process is not an easy one, it can seem lonely at times if you don’t have others in your community to support you, you will often fall back into old thought patterns and it will take much vulnerability, critical reflection and courage to stay true to this path. But ultimately the challenge and the effort will be worth it.
To this day, 20+ years removed from my treadmill workouts at 8 years old, I still struggle. In my training (yes, I’m still competing), career, and even other aspects of personal growth. I am still working to build the tools and knowledge to be okay with stopping, to not view rest as being lazy, to listen to my body, and to view self-compassion as a key stepping stone to living a more balanced, fulfilling and healthy life. What set this off? I can’t say it was one particular thing but more of a build up overtime, probably starting my junior year of college when I wrote a leadership paper that zoomed in on the question “what it means to live a good life.” My big guiding question that I ended my paper with is eerily similar to the questions I am working through now:
“This attitude of relaxing, living in the moment and going with the flow is new to me, but can be a huge positive in every aspect of my life. Do I have the ability to trust and be confident that this change can make the difference in my personal and social fulfillment and success?” **The one thing I have added is a stronger emphasis on this lifestyle as one that supports care and kindness towards the self.**
The difference between then and now is my trust, my experience and my knowledge. Through small moments of recognition, through research and personal reading, and other larger realizations like continuous pan and injury, I have inched my way closer to understanding what I need to and can do in my own life to shift my mindset and how I can support others in doing the same. It’s no longer “can I trust that relaxing and resting can make the difference?”. It's more how I can continue to unlearn the narrative I have been taught the last 20+ years and work towards a daily routine that is nurturing and fosters a new and more positive standard of behavior. My recent focus on self-care and self-compassion came at a final breaking point and a recognition that the life I live, the life we live, is not sustainable. I can’t keep telling myself that I haven’t done enough. I have to stop looking to the next thing to achieve at work or in my training and start recognizing what I have accomplished right here, right now and show myself some compassion and recognition. I always thought that if I pulled back a little then I wasn’t giving my full self, that I wasn’t being all in. To me, resting and just doing nothing was an indicator that I was lazy rather than an indicator that I was being smart, aware and listening to my body. But it’s all a lie we’ve been telling ourselves. If we are 100% all the time, trying to be perfect all the time WE WILL EVENTUALLY BREAK. There is a time to go hard, there is a time to stay up late, there are even weeks when we may be pushing in many aspects of our lives. BUT this needs to be the exception, not the rule.
So how do we make that happen? What can we do to cultivate a culture of care and compassion, one that values rest and understands that to excel and be out our best selves we need to be okay with letting down our guard, being vulnerable and asking for help. While I can’t say that I have all of the answers, I can recommend some simple things that we can start to do to shift our mindset and our actions:
Mindfulness & meditation: Sometimes I hesitate with writing these two words because I think people will shrug it off and think “okay, I need to do some quiet breathing to relieve stress”. The thing is, there is so much more to it and so many benefits that I feel like we haven’t even realized. Mindfulness is not just about calming yourself down with breathing but it is a new way of framing our existence and relation to the world and others. Thich Nhat Hanh states in my favorite book of his, You Are here, that the heart of practice is “to generate our own presence in such a way that we can touch deeply the life that is here and available in every moment...here for ourselves...here for the people we love...here for life with all its wonders.” Aside from the numerous mental and physical health benefits of the practice, what mindfulness also does it helps to pull us out of the stories we create of “not being enough” and “needing to push through” and frees us from these fears, doubts, plans and anxieties of the past and the future. Be it an app, a group practice, podcast or a book, finding the right form of practice for you is essential for you to become invested in the process.
Self-compassion practice: Directly tied to mindfulness, self-compassion practice is about directing the kindness we show towards friends and family inward to ourselves, building the tools and the mindset to become our own ally rather than the enemy. I would highly recommend reading up on Kristen Neff and her research/website on self-compassion, which provides everything from an introduction, to mindfulness self compassion practice to reflection activities. Self-compassion involves three main components 1. offering ourselves warmth and unconditional acceptance (rather than the typical tendency to reject ourselves when we mess up and push down our pain), 2. A sense of interconnectedness and common humanity, which reminds us that every single human being is a flawed work in progress and 3. Mindfulness, to be able to turn toward and acknowledge when we are suffering and “be” with our pain long enough to respond with kindness.
Finding joy in the small things: An offshoot of mindfulness is this idea that when we are constantly going, when we are on the hamster wheel with our minds focused on working for the future we often miss even the smallest things that can bring joy and a smile to our face. Even a daily practice of taking notes of the little things you appreciate can help to pull you out of spiraling thoughts of anxiety and back into the true reality that you are sitting in. While some people utilize a gratitude journal either at the beginning or end of the day, I like keeping track throughout and noticing minute details that make me smile. For example: three things I added this afternoon were “60 degree early March days, how refreshing and life giving my water with lemon is and my dog milo curling up like a cinnamon bun next to me”
Minis: Changing our mindset and our day-to-day practices doesn’t have to be a life overhaul. The first time I met my personal coach (before she even was my coach) she had mentioned incorporating minis throughout your day to show yourself compassion, to help transform your mood and even to help improve self-confidence. A mini can look like going for a walk, taking 10 minutes to read a leisure book, doing a stretching exercise to boost confidence (Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard Business School, reveals that your body language can change how you perceive yourself and she has her studies to prove it). Just start by brainstorming what minis will support you throughout your day and then saying yes to the minis when your body is telling you that you need one.
Reflection, Dialogue & Action - There can be no awareness and no action without reflective and problem posing dialogue. Holding in our own experiences of pain, shame, anxiety only breeds more anger, frustration, sadness and unfulfillment. Reflecting with others, connecting over shared experiences and investigating our lived experiences with a community that we can trust is a liberating process. Through problem posing, there is, as Paolo Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed “a constant unveiling of reality…[which] strives for the emergence of consciousness and critical intervention in reality” -- meaning, as we critically examine and question some of these narratives we are fed we are able to develop greater awareness of how they shape our sense of self, and the courage to act and create change. Start by finding a few friends, classmates, colleagues etc. and see if they would just be interested in having weekly or bi-monthly catch ups. You don’t have to jump off the deep in from the start, maybe begin by just asking about where people are at in their career, or how their stress levels are. Ultimately, as you let your guard down this group can become a safe space for human connection, an outlet to express and share in the challenges you are facing and an opportunity to develop courage with others to break out of an unfulfilling or unhealthy routine.
In the 1930’s economist John Maynard Keynes predicted a 15-hour workweek in the 21st century and he posed a new challenge for all of us. “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem,” Keynes wrote, “how to occupy the leisure.” I look forward to the day his prediction comes true and our greatest struggle will be understanding how to fill all of this unoccupied time we now have. Until we get there, I hope we can make that time and space for ourselves. I hope we will use it to adventure and explore, to lay out in the sun, to take notice of the beauty around us, to be with our family, to connect over our shared struggles of the human experience, to feel pure joy and to be at ease with our enoughness.
By Brianna Welch
Here are some resources that have helped me:
Gina LaRoche and Jennifer Cohen, The Seven Laws of Enough
Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here
Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
Dan Harris, 10% Happier Podcast
Kristen Neff, Self-compassion website
Buddhify App (there are many others like this one, such as Headspace, this is just my preference)