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Chronic Illness and The Over-Achiever Complex


So here I sit on my couch, after being written sick for a week. Unfortunately, I’ve been here before. And I don’t mean on my couch.

I finally went to my doctor this week after having strange symptoms for about 10 days, was sent for an MRI of my head, and was told to stay home for at least a week (MRI came back all clear, phewf). I returned from a Vipassana meditation retreat in early October and have had one infection, cold, flu, after the other until now. Despite having autoimmune issues and chronic stress, I usually don’t get “sick-sick” so often, so this is new. I’ve stayed home for a couple days at a time over the last few months, thinking that would do the trick. But did I really rest?

Before becoming chronically ill years ago, I had spent a long time trying to be the best at all the things. And then I had a burn out, which included diagnosis of a whole bunch of things, including two autoimmune diseases and CPTSD. Having to adjust my lifestyle and my expectations to heal was a hard hit for me. I was forced to learn how to rest.

But I have been doing much better in the last six months and had started getting used to it, so when I started having these new symptoms, I didn’t take it very seriously. When I got a cold, I thought, “Its just a cold, it will be over in a few days.” When I started passing out upon standing up, I thought, “This has happened before, and it usually goes away.” Eventually, though, I had to get things checked out.

I am not good at resting. Ever since I was young, I’ve had this drive to be productive. All. The. Time. It has led me to amazing things beyond what I ever imagined for myself. At other times, it has totally burnt me out.

I thought I had tamed this part of myself (ok, at least a little), but as this week at home comes to an end, I realized that I haven’t really rested. I’ve watched a bunch of Netflix, but I’ve also done a few consultations, managed to go for long walks, done most of my own food shopping, researched my symptoms and conditions, and even…shared the social media posts announcing the launch of my business. I’ve taken almost no naps. My brain even momentarily thought going for a run would be a good idea until my senses kicked in and said, “Umm WHAT, you can’t even stand up straight right now.” Every day, my boyfriend has come home a bit peeved at me for doing too much, and as much as I hate to admit it, he’s on to something. I am not getting better this way.

I mean, here I am writing this article on my last sick day. So lesson NOT learned yet.

There are so many things about me and my personal history that contribute to me being this way, but I know I am definitely not the only one. I get the sense that a lot of people with chronic illness know how it goes to be a Type-A over-achiever. Is it about being productive? It is about not knowing who I am if I have to lie in bed for a week? Is it about not being able to give myself a break? It is about self-worth?

Yes to all of those, and more. I can tell you first-hand that this mentality is not super compatible with healing. My immune system is in a crashed state and needs long-term rest; a few days sitting at home while actually working on other things isn’t going to cut it.

So what to do? It’s about reframing “productive.” Who decides what that is? I do. The world will not stop, nor will I disappear, if I take a break. Our society puts so much emphasis on productivity; this is why “burn-out” is on the rise. I do not need to be producing something or achieving something to be a valuable human being. Sometimes the most productive thing I can do for myself is absolutely nothing. I could take one day off (honestly, I usually work from home instead) every week or so when I feel like crap, thereby prolonging my symptoms for months, or I could sit out a few weeks of work, really rest, and beat the virus that’s resurfacing in me.

As good as this all sounds, it’s not so easy to accept on a deeper level, to change a lifetime of habits. It’s a work in progress, not one more thing to be hard on myself for. Luckily, (or unluckily, depending on how you see it), my body won’t allow me not to learn this lesson anymore. One day, maybe my rest time will be entirely full of Epsom salt baths, naps, meditation, candles, yoga, potentially enlightenment…until then, its just about shifting my mindset and creating an atmosphere where its OK to break down for awhile. And I will start by signing off for today (after finishing this article), NOT doing yoga, and taking a nap without guilt :)


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