I used to be addicted to success. Here's how I discovered my self-worth when the to-do list went away during the pandemic.

Liz Presson says she struggles with an overwhelming drive for success.Liz Presson
  • Throughout her career, writer and business owner Liz Presson says she conflated her sense of success with how other people saw her, rather than how she felt about herself.
  • In childhood and early adulthood, she struggled to gain support from her family and dreamed of the approval and validation they would give her if she became successful.
  • Presson realized that her self-worth was being wrapped up in an addiction-like urgency; she only felt worthy of love and happiness when when she was achieving something.
  • During the pandemic, Presson began to create new personal goals, like cooking more and being a better aunt, that allowed her to learn to value herself as a person and not just a professional.
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My name is Liz, and I'm addicted to success.

Liz PressonLiz Presson

No, it's not heroin, but a drive to succeed can cause immense pain. And yes, it can be like an addiction.

For as long as I can remember, when I think about achieving a goal, my first thought isn't about how it'll make me feel. It's how it will look to everyone else. I go as far as imagining my estranged dad Googling my name and seeing it next to something impressive that I've done.
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For the past 10 years, I've worked hard to build a company with a stellar reputation, happy employees, and an impressive client list.

All the while, I ignored the creeping sense that my relationship with professional achievements was unhealthy.

Lockdown forced me to confront my denial. Like 7.5 million small businesses at risk of closing in the US, COVID-19 has had a major impact on my business. In March, I went from being busier than ever to my work decreasing by 75%.

In the wake of that change over the last seven months, I've realized that work and success has been my coping mechanism, my social currency, and a convenient wall for me to avoid building deep, personal relationships.
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As a kid, I was praised for being self-sufficient.

My fierce independence was convenient for my family's situation. My dad was an angry alcoholic, and my mom was working on completing nursing school. It was difficult to get the love and attention that I now know kids shouldn't have to fight for.

By the time I was a pre-teen, my dad and his whole side of the family had disappeared from my life. As I got older, and especially in early adulthood, I imagined that my achievements would make the family — who not only abandoned me but made me feel like I wasn't good enough for them — regret their decision. By the time I was 25, I had left my corporate job as the marketing director of a tech company and started my own digital consultancy. I found myself seeking their imaginary approval. Somehow, I wanted them to see me now and think, "We should've gotten to know her."
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Like an addiction, for the workaholic, success is never enough.

Presson speaking at the Medicine X conference at Stanford University.Liz Presson.

When I'm achieving, I feel worthy of love and happiness. And when I'm not, instead of reflecting on my character traits, like being a kind and generous person, I wrack my brain for a new client I can pitch or the next big stage I can stand on to get applause from a room full of strangers.

I often feel like I'm performing in my personal life, too. My friends gave me the nickname "BizLiz" for my routine of never quite giving in to an activity, but stopping by, talking business, and usually having a work-related reason to leave early.
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Once, I met a friend for dinner who had decided to leave her job. She was excited to take time to explore and decide what to do next, but I went into our meal like it was a business meeting, equipped with strategies and outcomes for her new potential career path. She just wanted to chat as friends, and didn't need me to provide value other than just being there.

In any room, whenever it feels like everyone else has so much to offer, I trade business bootstrapping advice, resources, and contacts in exchange for surface-level approval.

Superficial validation has always felt like enough for me, because I was too busy with more important things — or so I told myself. But in March, when the clients dropped, and there were no more conferences with stages, and people started getting sick — and dying — it became clear that what I thought was so important wasn't at all what life was about.
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For a workaholic, time off during the pandemic may be particularly painful.

Initially, when my workload decreased, I thought that the break wouldn't be such a bad thing. I'd been planning to slow down for a while, and I was fortunate enough to have some savings. I imagined I'd take online workshops, spend more time working out, and read novels in my free time.

Instead, I tried to outrun the pandemic by reaching out for any potential opportunity for more work. Despite knowing that everyone else was going through it too (many in worse situations than my own), I felt like I was alone, fighting to keep my head above water.

At home, I struggled with my partner. I hated that he could see me, 24/7, without any of my busyness — my armor. I thought back to when we first met, and he engaged me in conversation by complimenting my business acumen. Now, sitting on our couch waiting for email responses that I was sure would never come, in my dirty sweatpants, I wondered if he would like the me that was left. Would anyone?
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Without work, I was compelled to look hard at myself.

During the pandemic, Presson has shifted and refocused her priorities.Liz Presson

During our first virtual session in April, my therapist asked me to list words that describe myself unrelated to work, achievement, or productivity. I rattled off a couple of qualities, then stopped. I didn't know. I felt like a fraud. I had to find out who I was as a person when the to-do list went away.
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At first, I returned to familiar habits like giving myself timelines for increasing my client load and revenue by offering new services. Then I felt like a failure when that didn't work.

By August, I started to set more personal goals instead. I aimed to cook at home more, to be a better aunt to my niece and nephew, and even to create boundaries around the new work that I wanted to take on, if and when the opportunities arose, so I wouldn't say yes out of desperation.

As I created these new goals, the feelings of failure began to subside.

Instead of hiding out in my office on my laptop watching Netflix and pretending I was working, I took real time off. I went camping for a week. Instead of virtually high-fiving with friends who were thriving, pandemic and all, I told the truth — that I was worried my business was fading away. And even more so, that my relentless motivation was shifting, and that I might not be the same "always on" CEO in whatever new normal is yet to come.
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Seven months into the pandemic, I'm learning that there's more to being a successful person than my identity as a business owner and a top-performer.

It's not that I want to stop achieving, it's that I want to value myself differently, and in turn, value others more.

The last time I met with my therapist, I was able to say: I'm funny, I'm creative, I'm a great aunt. The list goes on, I'm sure — and I'm finally taking this time to show up to find out.
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Liz Presson is a writer, business owner, and public speaker living in Brooklyn. She writes about things like sex and relationships, mental health, addiction, and elevating the voice of women in the workplace. Her work has been featured in Marie Claire, The Guardian, BUST Magazine, Ravishly, The Rumpus, and others. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
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