Like many, I thrive on stress. I do my best work on tight deadlines, I love intense fitness classes, and I often take jobs that require long days and an always-on work ethic. The more invested I am—whether in my career, getting in shape, or even completing my to-do list—the more rewarding it feels.
On one hand, putting pressure on myself has pushed me toward some of my greatest achievements. Overtime hours and a relentless dedication to quality helped me get big promotions and respect from senior leadership. Dragging myself to countless social events helped me build a huge network—both personal and professional. Even the 5 a.m. wake-up calls had their perks. While I once thought I couldn’t run more than three miles, I’ve now done four half-marathons and a triathlon.
It’s easy to lose sight of priorities, especially when you’re a perfectionist.
But there’s a downside. Those races ultimately resulted in the worst injury I’ve ever had, which meant I had to lay off exercise for nearly two years. Those big promotions cost me friendships and romantic relationships. (I can’t count the amount of times people have told me I’m a workaholic and that I take my job—and myself—far too seriously.) I also continuously cut quality time with my family short because of work, including the last time I visited my grandfather (something I will always regret).
It’s easy to lose sight of priorities, especially when you’re a perfectionist. When you hold yourself to high standards, as I tend to do, you often feel like you’re underperforming or not doing enough. Cue: stress.
A Hard Look at “Happiness”
Recently I thought everything had finally fallen into place. I was working for one of the most esteemed newspapers in the world, I was dating the man of my dreams, and we’d just signed a lease for an apartment with a washer, dryer, and a backyard. I was happy and content—something I’d been unsuccessfully striving for my entire 20s.
What I didn’t realize was that underneath all of the happiness was a whole lot of stress. While my job looked great on paper, I was struggling. My team was lean and had unrealistic goals. I worked long days and had to be available for projects at night. And most importantly, I didn’t love what I was doing. Sure, telling people where I worked made me gleam with pride, but when they asked about my actual job, I wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.
My new relationship also came with challenges. It was, and still is, the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in, but I didn’t know how to communicate my need for space and rest. My constant complaining about work also began taking its toll. I went from calmly communicating my frustrations to bursting through the door every evening ranting about the incessant drama at work. I was turning into my own worst nightmare, and I didn’t know how to stop myself. As patient and kind as my partner is, I could tell my unhappiness was making him unhappy too.
I was turning into my own worst nightmare, and I didn’t know how to stop myself.
Even our beautiful apartment came with drawbacks. Some days my commute from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan would take over an hour, making me late or, even worse, causing me to miss meetings. It also turns out we moved next to an abandoned house that’s inhabited by feral cats who use our backyard as their toilet.
While my job was definitely the root of the problem, stress and anxiety were quickly seeping into every aspect of my life. I put a pessimistic spin on everything, had a short fuse with everyone, and was so consumed with myself that I couldn’t see how much I was pushing everyone away.
I was defensive and stubborn when people commented on my behavior. “It’s just a job,” they’d say. “You’re not curing cancer.” And when they highlighted the positive things—you love your coworkers, you’re learning so much, you’re getting married this year!—I didn’t want to hear it.
Slowly but surely my friends stopped asking how I was, and when they did, I could tell they were bracing themselves for my answer. They even stopped asking me to hang out, and for the first time, I learned what FOMO felt like. I watched my best friends laugh and smile on Instagram without me, and go to concerts, my favorite bars, and new restaurants I’d wanted to try. I’d always felt like a central part of my friend group, and now I was an outsider.
Still, it didn’t truly hit me until I realized I was damaging one of the most important relationships in my life.
Recognizing My Worst Self
One night over dinner with my boyfriend, I spent the entire evening not-so-sneakily checking my emails, venting, and rushing through each bite so I could get one step closer to my couch and computer. I was irritable, distracted, self-involved, and anything but fun.
On our way home, we sat in silence. I used this opportunity to check emails (again) and not surprisingly received a request to finish a project before 8 a.m. the next morning. I grunted, shared the bad news, and could feel the steam coming through my ears and the tension growing throughout my body. I was at my breaking point, and I made it known.
After an anxiety-inducing pause, he finally spoke. “You’re not happy,” he said. “You aren’t being the person I met or the one I fell in love with.” The words knocked the wind out of me. And for the first time, I didn’t feel defensive—I felt ashamed. It was as if his words lifted a haze that had been over my eyes.
“You aren’t being the person I met or the one I fell in love with.”
I started noticing the little things, like the fact that I ate all my meals like a ravenous raccoon, not savoring a single bite and often overeating. My digestion was a mess. I was bloated and irregular, and random foods made me nauseated. I was drinking too much to mask my discomfort. This also meant I wasn’t exercising regularly (even my yoga pants felt constricting, and I could hardly twist, my stomach hurt so bad), which in turn meant I had low energy, felt self-conscious about my body, and wasn’t sleeping well.
I realized there were friends I hadn’t seen in months, birthdays I’d forgotten, events I didn’t show up for, and texts I hadn’t responded to in weeks. I wondered if the people in my life still liked me. If I were them, I wouldn’t.
The first step toward progress may be knowing there’s a problem, but moving forward was far from easy. I knew what I had to do, but putting those things into action felt like a herculean effort. Should I quit my job? Go on a yoga retreat and meditate until I feel like a new person? Leave New York and move somewhere that operates at a slower pace?
I am overanalytical and extremely introspective when it comes to change, so it’s no surprise it took me months to take action. Yet, slowly, I did.
First I set boundaries at work. I wanted to show that success doesn’t mean working 16-hour days, so I scheduled workout classes in the early evening to force myself to leave the office. I also started saying no to unrealistic requests—but instead of turning them down entirely, I’d offer an alternative solution: No, I couldn’t complete a project by the next morning, but I could by the afternoon. I tempered my colleague’s expectations and ultimately gave them better work. While this wasn’t always possible, it was hugely helpful, and I got much less pushback than expected.
To make sure I was prioritizing my relationship, I left two nights free each week so we could cook dinner and spend time together. Every Sunday we’d go over our schedule and put our dates on the calendar. If we couldn’t do evenings, we’d find a morning to wake up early and cook breakfast. We also held each other accountable. There were, and will always be, exceptions, but the soft guidelines helped transform our time together.
I followed a similar approach with my friends. I started combining social activities with exercise, suggesting yoga dates and long walks. I also carried over my “no, but…” strategy: No, I can’t go out that night, but I am free X and Y days and would love to see you. Additionally, I started putting people’s birthdays in my calendar and setting email notifications so I wouldn’t forget. The most amazing thing about good friends is how quickly they forgive you. It also taught me that little gestures go a long way. A quick text—Thinking of you! Hope all is well—can make someone’s day.
Figuring Out the Future
While it may sound like I’ve figured it all out, I haven’t.
I’ve since left my job, and every day I worry about where my next paycheck is coming from. I wonder if I’m doing enough to find my next opportunity and if my freelance projects are enough to maintain my lifestyle. I struggle with the balance between being frugal and not limiting myself so much that I’m unnecessarily saying no to new experiences. I kick myself when I secretly treat myself to Ooey Gooey Butter Cake ice cream, since I want to get to a place where I feel confident, fit, and healthy. But I also know that seeing results means I need to work hard and say no to things I love. As you can see, I can find stress in anything.
What’s different now is that I’m aware of my tendency to put pressure on myself and actively work to diffuse it. I’m learning how to balance my time, how to put my own needs aside when it’s important, and how to let go of the stuff that truly doesn’t matter.
Yesterday, I found out that a job I really wanted was offered to someone else. I also went to a concert, ate chips and cheese for dinner, and washed it down with two huge glasses of wine. While both of these incidents could have thrown me into a downward spiral, I decided to take them in stride. Today I may not be financially stable, but I’m working on getting there. Today my stomach may feel abused, but I’m going to fill it with healthy food and get it back on track. I also had a great time with my friends, one of whom is leaving New York, so all in all, the splurge was worth it.
It’s all about balance.