For a little over a month, I have been navigating the rigors of launching my debut book, Real Self-Care, into the world. I’ve had to face the reality that being an author, just like being a parent, is a role wherein you can *always do more*. Interestingly, this tension exists across many different jobs and roles — entrepreneurship, caretaking work of all kinds, and creative work.
So naturally, today, I am writing about ambition — and, if and when it’s okay to pause it.
There’s a simple answer to that question and it is: YES. Of course.
When we talk about ambition, what commonly comes to mind is professional success or goals related to your education and career. In reality, the word ambition can also be applied to relationships (I want to be married by the time I’m 35) or to caretaking work (I want to exclusively breastfeed or I want to take care of my aging mother in my home).
The hard truth is if you are a human living in the world, you’ll have to pause at some point, either by choice or by force.
In Real Self-Care, I set forth boundaries as Principle 1 of Real Self-Care. My conceptualization of boundaries is a little different — I define boundaries as The Pause. Your boundary is in the space between when someone asks you to do something, and when you respond. You have 3 choices — yes, no, or negotiate. The boundary is The Pause, not the No. Depending on your social determinants of health, your life circumstances, and your identity, No might not always be an option, but The Pause is.
In today’s Therapy Takeaway, I’m applying The Pause to how we think about ambition, and giving you some new language to reflect on your own ambition (s).
Your Therapy Takeaway:
Reframe the question from an “if” to a “when.”
When you stay stuck in the if — Is it okay to slow down? Is it okay to stop hustling? Is it okay to take care of myself? — you’re actually still on the hamster wheel, aligned with oppressive external forces that are dictating your self-worth. By changing the question from “if” to “when,” not only are you recognizing the reality of your humanity (eg. we are all human beings who need rest, relaxation, even–gasp!–leisure), you are also being more honest with yourself.
This song by Marina and the Diamonds comes to my mind: I am not a Robot. None of us are robots! (sorry, y’all.) And, a nice thing happens when you move into “when.” It enables you to be present for the good things that are currently happening, as opposed to always being so focused on what needs to happen next. I experienced this recently when I decided for myself that June + July were going to be my months of *real rest*. I still have a bunch of book travel coming up in May, but once I made the decision that I was going to take Fridays off in June/July, I felt more excited about what was on my plate for May. Knowing when you have a reprieve coming helps. (To all those workaholics out there, you have to actually follow through with your plan for rest!)
Think about the marathon, not the sprint
When it comes to ambition, the fallacy is that our goals do not come to fruition right away, that we will never achieve them. But, the truth is that big goals — big dreams — take time. To rush is to mistake this for a sprint when in reality it’s a lifelong marathon. You’ll only finish the marathon if you do it in a way that centers your mental health.
So ask yourself — where have you been sprinting with your ambition? Are there situations or places in your life where you can name the marathon? It’s important to recognize that when we are talking about ambition, this is not just about work, school or career. It can also be in our personal lives — the ambition of wanting to find a life partner, get married, have a baby, exclusively breastfeed, just to name a few.
Stop fearing the “melt into a puddle” phase
You might be reading this and thinking, if I let go of my ambition, will I just melt into a puddle and never leave the couch? The real answer — maybe. The length and intensity of your melt-into-a-puddle phase is determined by the intensity and duration of your hyper-productivity phase.
When you fear and avoid the melt-into-a-puddle phase, you will forever be ping-ponging between
- unchecked ambition at the cost of your health
- dissociation in front of bad TV or doom-scrolling your phone for hours at a time
I also recognize that there are seasons in life, because of the societal betrayal women and marginalized groups face, that all that’s possible is sloth mode on the couch because you are forced to be hyperproducing. Sometimes that is all that is possible, and that’s why we turn to faux self-care — it’s a temporary bandaid.
What I’m proposing here is that when we integrate rest and pausing *into* our ambition (again, whether that is ambitions related to work or family life), that’s when we have the strength to persevere for the long haul.
If you love this and want to follow the thread deeper, the next stage is to reflect on if and how your ambition lines up with your values. When there is a values mismatch between your goals and/or how you are moving toward them, that can lead to some of what we are talking about here — where it feels hard to give yourself permission to pause, and a feeling that you don’t know how to make that choice for yourself.