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.