This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
When I was in fourth grade my report card said, ”Natarsha is the ideal overachiever.” I had never seen that word in writing, nor had I heard it spoken in conversation, but it accompanied straight As, so I figured it was a good thing. It wasn’t until I was much older that I started to closely examine the impact being an “ideal overachiever” has had on my life.
In sixth grade I went toe to toe with pre-algebra as it tried to wrestle away my “ideal overachiever” title. I won that battle. I also defeated stoichiometry in AP Chemistry and consistently placed first chair violin in our school’s orchestra. I practiced my basketball free throw in the backyard and listened to the poetry I was to recite on my Walkman during my one-hour bus ride to and from school. I begin to associate the title of “ideal overachiever” with good grades, outstanding conduct, and well-practiced performances. I had to study hard, remain even keeled, and practice. This formula for “ideal overachiever” solidified as I moved through college proudly repeating the descriptor of my fourth-grade teacher.
About four years ago, in 2018, things changed. During a conversation with my doctoral cohort at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, I was asked how I was doing. Before I had time to filter my response or check my emotions I said, “Overwhelmed! Everything is just too much.” My cohort mates nodded in agreement as I described events, due dates, assignments, and responsibilities that were crowding my life. During this check-in we all expressed some variation of over functioning. I left this check-in wondering, “Natarsha, what are you overcompensating for?” In other words, what error or weakness was I doing too much to try to correct? I remember saying out loud, “Girl, what are you doing now?” I wrote those words on a note and stuck it on my desk. These questions needed much more time and attention than I could offer at that moment.
Why was it not enough to achieve? Why was I so desperate to OVERachieve?
Over the next few months, I became very honest with myself through the help of good coaching and therapy. I discovered that I was trying to be successful in my vocation and education as an adult by using the formula for an “ideal overachiever” that I had learned in grade school. The problem was that formula and that title only worked when I sought to please my teachers and other adults. But I realized that, as an adult, I was not pleased by simply achieving, and I was exhausting myself by overachieving. So, I needed to create a new formula and find a title that pleased me. Why was it not enough to achieve? Why was I so desperate to OVERachieve?
In the process of coming to the answer, more questions surfaced for me. I must admit that my questions are familiar companions. This time, as I sat on a park bench, an answer came in the form of a commandment: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. I watched squirrels run, ducks swim, deer graze and people walk, and I wondered if the animals worried about overachieving and overcompensating. Do the ducks race in the pond for first place? Do the squirrels thank each other for successfully storing enough nuts for winter? Then I thought, “What am I overcompensating for?”
My mind wandered to my teenage self, sitting in church listening to my pastor preach about the greatest two commandments. I remember enjoying how the fiery sermon caused quite a response among the congregation. The preacher repeatedly implored us to “Love ya ney-buh like ya love ya’self!” He repeated this refrain so melodiously that it still rings in my ears as a 40-year-old woman.
That moment, on the park bench, it became clear that I was overcompensating for a lack of self-love. It showed up when I said yes to opportunities in hopes that others would see me as worthy of love. For example, my workplace was hosting a lunch for the staff, and I was asked to bring chips. Well, I not only brought chips, but also sandwiches and homemade brownies. The reward? My co-workers thanked me multiple times and a few even said, “I love those brownies.” I interpreted their comments as gratitude. Worthiness. They may have “loved” me, but it did not translate to loving myself.
I resolved to do something I had never done: I created my schedule to include acts that demonstrate self-love. I recognized that, if I were to exchange the “ideal overachiever” title assigned to me for the “sacred human” title chosen for me by the God who created me, something needed to change. I needed to prioritize loving and caring for myself. So, I spend time alone in nature for an hour or two daily. This enables me to focus a lot better and allows me time to connect with God. Self-love has led me to understand my humanity.
It became clear that I was overcompensating for a lack of self-love.
Love is a verb. Love must always be present and active within me and for me if I am to give love away as commanded. Now, as a sacred human, I love myself by going for walks in nature as a necessity, not a reward. I love myself by listening to my body. When I need to sleep, I sleep. When I need to eat, I eat. When I do not want to be in the company of another, I do not force myself. When I am tired, I rest. When I am filled with love, then I am able to offer love to others. I love myself through honesty. I love myself by honoring my commitments and only committing to things that make me come alive. As theologian Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I came alive to my sacred humanity talking to my cohort mates that day. May it always be so.
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MARY NEWTON says
Oh my! This article was eye opening for me. Like you, I too, am a recovering over achiever. I have Pastored a church for over 14 years now and have 24 years in ministry. Just as you, throughout my elementary school, high school, college and post graduate schools, I have strived to always to excel; to do better than my colleagues all in the effort that I would get noticed and get appreciation from my peers or those who had authority over me, whether it was a Teacher in school, or a Supervisor in the workplace, or as in our Zion, a Bishop. It didn’t always happen for me thus I am in therapy, and in reading your article, I was reading myself. After entering the Ministry, I felt it was “God calling me to ‘over-achieve in Ministry’. After all Jesus get up early in the morning and was always going about doing the Father’s will”. I love ministry; I love helping others; I am called to do this, but I believe now that it wasn’t my trying to please God, but that it was all about trying to please someone else so I can feel appreciated. Thank you for the confirmation! When you know better, you do better! I am stepping down from ministry (a few years before I could retire), and I am now on a quest to love me for the remaining years of my life.
Thank you for your article and God bless you!
Natarsha Sanders says
Mary, thank you for your response and thank you for reading this article. I am grateful to know that you are coming to place in life where you can journey to love yourself. May the path you take lead to the self-love you need. Love and light.
Natasha– Thank you for this essay. It resonates with me and reminds me that this is our most important work, bringing our unique and sacred “aliveness” to this world, and connecting with the same in others.
Natarsha Sanders says
YES Ruth! Connection is necessary and how we make a connection to another human is so important. I yearn for a time when we are connected by what makes us come alive.
Sarah Erickson says
YEP. As one overachiever to another – thank you for sharing your reflections.
Natarsha Sanders says
Thank you Sarah! Overachieving is so common, so harmful and so normalized. Day by day and moment by moment I am learning that what makes me come alive is enough.
Sandy Irving says
Beth Jensen says
Thank you, Natasha, for illuminating for me how I, too, have tried to overachieve and over-function from childhood. My spirit resonates with yours and I pray for good in our futures for the glory of God.
A wise counselor, during a session, asked me to consider including myself in my circle of care. Your article helps me understand why I need to care for myself more regularly and more intentionally. Thank you.