Recovering workaholic, Dr. Marlene Fuller (Citizens Bank), shares how she stopped defining herself by her productivity and started asking for help.
I am a recovering workaholic.
I’m an overachiever who is constantly running a marathon where every mile has to be done in 5 minutes or less! It doesn’t matter who is behind me. I measure my success by who is in front of me. I can’t say that I’ve always enjoyed the race. I wasn’t always fully present. I didn’t celebrate. I was already focused on the next goal—setting the bar higher and higher for myself.
As a habitual overachiever, addicted to the drive of success and believing the lie that I am only loveable based on what I can accomplish, my achievement was supposed to guarantee that I would be loved. That I would feel good about myself.
How did I become a workaholic?
I am loveable for what I do. That’s the lie that I lived for 40 years. And it seemed to be working until everything started falling apart and I could no longer ‘do’ anything.
How did I start believing this lie? I’m glad you asked.
I am a product of integrated schools in the US in the 70’s. Integration didn’t bring acceptance. I don’t remember any celebrations. I remember being punished a lot with a ruler. I know what it's like for teachers to question the authenticity of my school work because it seemed to be too good. They didn’t want me there.
My parents were benefactors of affirmative action jobs for blacks in America. They worked union jobs and had crazy schedules. I was a latchkey kid. I learned that I had to do things on my own. My parents are wonderful and they celebrated every achievement, especially when they couldn’t be there. I liked the applause that success gave me.
My undergraduate journey reminded me daily that I was black, I didn’t fit in and I was not good enough. I even received failing grades un-necessarily from professors who would yell at me.
My work career began at a company in Birmingham, AL—a long way from home—where my white male counterparts explicitly told me that I didn’t belong and that I wasn’t good enough to be on the leadership team.
This is the short scenario of my childhood and young adult years. These experiences communicated the message that I needed to do it on my own. I had to work harder than everyone. I would feel loved and accepted as long as I could achieve something.
This coping behavior seemed to be working until life crumbled.
I had a public failure, or what I thought was a failure, and I couldn’t wear this pretentious mask any longer.
My marriage ended. I ended the marriage. I wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. I wasn’t used to failing. I didn’t know what to do. I had no survival strategy. I hadn’t built relationships to help me when I had a problem.
I didn’t talk to anyone when I miscarried, when I lost my job, when I experienced grief. I was the one always helping others with their problems. I had failed. Or so I thought.
This failure saved me and set me up to heal and enjoy life.
I started talking. I allowed myself to feel all of the pain that I was carrying. I reached out to get support in a way that I never imagined I would. I dug deeper into the pains of my past. But I couldn’t help myself. I got help.
In this process, I started being able to see myself. I started to appreciate the person that I am. I learned the truth—that I am loveable not because of what I do but simply because of who I am. I am human and I am God’s child.
I became so passionate about my experiences that I began listening and sharing with others differently. I learned that sharing my journey was helping others. So, I went back to college again (this would make degree number 4!) and I got a degree in counseling.
Now as a single mother of a teenage son, I am overwhelmingly grateful for this journey. It may not have been easy and not everyday is great, but it all works together for my good. These experiences have made me who I am, and when I look in the mirror I like who I am. Even when I’m doing nothing.
I’m multi-vocational. I still struggle with being a workaholic.
Every now and then I have a relapse. When I relapse, I get help just like I did at the beginning of the crisis. I’ve learned to be patient with myself. I no longer try to avoid falling down. When I do, I laugh at my mistakes, learn the lessons, forgive myself, and let it go. This race of life is not won by the swift nor the strong. The race is given to those who endure to the end.
One my favorite music artists is Mary J. Blige and she sums up my life’s journey this way:
I like what I see when I'm looking at me
When I'm walking past the mirror
Don't stress through the night, at a time in my life
Ain't worried about if you feel it
Got my head on straight, I got my vibe right
I ain't gonna let you kill it
You see I wouldn't change my life, my life's just...
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