Redefining Success in Order to Stay Alive

By Renea Di BellaSeptember 11, 2020

Every personality test I’ve ever taken has told me I have a “Type A” personality. I am an overachiever, a workaholic, detail-oriented, neurotic.

I excelled at school. I’ve exceeded expectations in all of my jobs. I have a reputation of being highly efficient, learning fast, sacrificing whatever is necessary, going the extra distance, and raising the curve for my peers.

Being a middle school teacher came naturally to me because I can multitask like a champ. Someone on Twitter once said that teachers make 1,500 decisions per day. I have no idea if that number is true or not, but it feels like it is. I am definitely competitive, a perfectionist, critical of myself, impatient, energetic, and aggressive when it comes to getting the job done. All of these qualities are necessary when you are trying to appear “highly effective” on paper for your district and the state, make sure all students actually have an equitable chance to learn, and mentor each individual student through the hardest three years of their life.

I took pride in my Type A personality. It made me excellent. I got honors. I won awards. I gave speeches.

I almost killed myself last October.

Honestly, our society values Type A personalities. They make someone highly efficient and productive; two things that fuel capitalism. What I’ve recently learned, though, is my Type A personality was made possible by unbridled anxiety.

I was a professional multitasker because I was obsessed with others’ approval. I literally felt like the approval of others was the only thing that gave me worth. I felt like once I had that approval, I had to continually prove I deserved it by earning it over and over again.

I lived on a hamster wheel, in constant fear that I would lose everything I had earned if I dared to stop and take a break. I told myself that every mistake was a failure, and that failure could kill me. I embodied the Talladega Nights: “If you’re not first, you’re last” mentality.

Basically, I allowed my extreme anxiety free rein over my life. I caught myself in the trap of constantly feeling worthless and not good enough. I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders when no one asked me to in the first place. I was miserable.

And, at the same time, why would anyone assume anything was wrong when I was doing so well? On the outside I was perfect. I was doing “it.” I was achieving my goals, supporting my family, and gaining approval from the people I sought to be respected by.

Isn’t that what success looks like?

Unfortunately, yes. This is what success in our society looks like. The narrative of the Type A personality is a convenient way to encourage at-all-costs productivity. As long as someone is productive, they are successful.

By explaining my extreme behavior away with my Type A personality, I was able to hide my mental illnesses. I could avoid dealing with any of my problems by adding more work onto my plate and being rewarded for it by my superiors. If I just kept going, and never stopped, I would never have to face my anxiety for real.

I was winning awards based on my performance. My performance was fueled by my ability to pretend I wasn’t constantly on the edge of cracking, while I took on more and more work.

And then I finally cracked.

My Type A personality was really anxiety all along. And my need for the approval of others was trapping me in cycles of toxic thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. So I’m officially letting my Type A self go.

Type A Renea is gone. I put her to rest in the name of mindfulness, happiness, self-love, and stability.

I am already grieving her absence. It’s hard to let go of excellence. It’s hard to accept that living a healthier life means giving up what once made me “great.”

This is a major transition. Living a mental health-focused life has led me to make a lot of changes. Living mindfully and focusing on one day at a time isn’t traditionally conducive to success in a capitalistic sense. I guess you could say I’m starting to change my definition of “success,” as I’m far happier as a Type B.

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Comments (9)

  1. Melissa

    Every word I read felt like it was something I had written myself. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for helping me feel like I’m not the only one.

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  2. Gabby

    “As long as someone is productive, they are successful.” That part killed me. I’ve had the exact opposite situation my whole life. All around me I’ve seen super productive, successful, seemingly happy people and I was none of that. I don’t feel like a productive member of society, therefore I’m worthless. It’s a thought process I’m gradually trying to unlearn, but it’s so hard.

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  3. Kathryn

    I admire your ability to find just the right words… words I feel like I’ve been looking for, for a very long time.
    “By explaining my extreme behavior away with my Type A personality, I was able to hide my mental illnesses.”
    “I was winning awards based on my performance. My performance was fueled by my ability to pretend I wasn’t constantly on the edge of cracking, while I took on more and more work.”
    In my case, it was training… I was a gymnast, ‘winning awards’ based on an eating disorder and obedience to my coaches. ‘Fueled by my ability to pretend I wasn’t constantly on the edge of cracking, while I took on more and more’ hours at the gym. More and more training sessions, more and more conditioning, etc.
    Thank you for helping me see it for what it really was.

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  4. Melissa

    I held my breath while I read this, just knowing that someone had been reading my thoughts. Excruciating, but liberating. Realizing that letting my expectations of perfection go was the right decision for me and that I am not alone. Thank you for taking the time to write this. You have blessed me.

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  5. KT

    This is me to a T. My therapist is working really hard on getting me out of that mentality and helping me cope with my anxiety. Some days Type A wins some days Type B wins. I am proud to say that more days B shows up.
    Thank you for putting into words what I haven’t been able to.

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  6. anne

    Thank you so much for this article, Renea. It could not have come at a better time for me. Your words truly sound like something I would write about my own experience. I’ve been diagnosed as bi-polar but I’ve never been sure if my condition has made me live like a hamster on a wheel most of my life — perfect scores, honors, awards, the endless quest for approval and accolades — or I became bi-polar precisely because of my destructive quest for perfection. Thank you, Renea and those of you who replied to her article, for sharing a piece of yourselves. You all make me hopeful and less alone in my struggle to overcome my Type A personality before it completely kills my joy in life.

    Reply  |  
  7. Tyler

    This was such a perfect explanation of my life. Thank you for putting this out there and helping me find a way to articulate what I’m going through. I hope this helps many people.

    Reply  |  
  8. Jay

    How does one accept this? What does this acceptance look like for you? I had a complete mental breakdown in January and haven’t been able to really work since. I am struggling something fierce. I need to know it will be okay.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Jay,

      It can be hard to sit with uncertainty and not knowing what comes next. But we hope that you do know you are worthy of peace and support, especially when you are struggling with your mental well-being. It is okay to take time to care for yourself first and foremost, but we are aware that sometimes our jobs or other responsibilities don’t take this into consideration. If you are in need of support and encouragement, please email our team at [email protected]. We would be honored to offer you some help.

      With Hope,

      Reply  |  
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