Regardless of the fact I had to work as though nothing special was happening, people who knew what was happening probably expected me to be walking on air, perhaps sporting an extra-cheerful demeanor that would mildly confuse my coworkers if I didn’t tell them what was going on.
Instead, I Googled “feeling sad after an accomplishment,” just to see what came up. I read a few articles which provide rational explanations for feeling empty, sad, angry, or insecure following a big accomplishment that we had expected would make us feel triumphant for days.
While such articles are helpful to some extent, primarily by providing validation that there’s nothing “wrong” with feeling low when we expected to feel high, one drawback is that such articles seek to explain our feelings rather than encourage us to feel them. Having to justify, assign value-judgments to, or convince ourselves of the validity of our feelings often takes us out of our feelings—and thus out of our inner wisdom—by locking us in our heads just when we most need to connect with our hearts.
That being said, there are some good points in the above-mentioned articles. In her article “When success leaves you feeling empty,” Adele Scheele says “Succeeding requires one set of skills. Managing success [requires] another set.” Many of us are simply unaccustomed to feeling accomplished and being praised for big accomplishments, and thus feel uncomfortable if the spotlight is turned on us even if it’s for good reasons. We simply don’t know how to handle it, so our initial reaction is to feel low instead of on top of the world.
In “Feeling depressed after reaching a big goal? Here’s why,” Sarah Anderson makes the point that as we build on our accomplishments, we gradually get used to the “high” of our experience of moving forward, and finally achieving a big goal we’ve been striving for can feel rather anticlimactic and “less satisfying than expected.”
Anderson then goes on to provide some good tips for helping ourselves get the most out of our accomplishments—without, as she puts it, relying on other people’s positive feedback regarding our accomplishments to make or break our feelings about them.
This latter point ties in perfectly with the Buddhist concept of relative happiness versus absolute happiness—Relative happiness being dependent and conditioned on our circumstances and absolute happiness being unconditional happiness we cultivate from within. The latter is a core component of enlightenment.
Two questions that Anderson proposes we ask ourselves when mixed feelings about our accomplishments cloud our sense of personal mission—“What would I be doing if money wasn’t a problem?” and “When do I feel most alive?”—are worth asking ourselves frequently, regardless of if we’re in the midst of accomplishment, failure, or anything in between.
In addition to following Anderson’s advice to generate our own inner praise rather than rely on other people’s, reward ourselves with something tangible (I chose to finally upgrade my tiny Buddhist altar bell to a 5” singing-bowl tuned to the throat chakra), and her reminder that “it’s the journey that matters, not the destination,” reflecting on what comes up when we ask ourselves the two questions above can help us strike some much-needed balance between the emotional surges of success and feeling like underachievers in between our accomplishments.
As the above ideas occurred to me, I gradually came to feel some of that “go me!” warm-fuzzy, which is my preferred kind of accomplishment-feeling rather than big, splashy cheering, shouting from the rooftops, telling everyone everywhere what I just did, and so on.
While there’s nothing wrong with big splashy cheering and shouting from the rooftops, they simply aren’t my style. Instead of being invigorated, I have historically found such expressions exhausting, so I thought I’d write these reflections in a new mini-series for people I know who may have mixed feelings about their own accomplishments—and guilt about their emotional subtlety when well-meaning people tell them how they "should" feel or act on their big days.
"Clip Art Me" by Karla Joy Huber, 2005; Microsoft Paint