When Winning Gold Isn't Enough

 
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“We think accomplishing things will complete us. When it’s experiencing life that will.” - Mark Nepo

A couple of weeks ago, I had one of the most powerful conversations with a stranger I’ve ever had. After finishing up a full day swim clinic, I grabbed dinner to-go and sat down by the outdoor pool at the hotel. I wanted to relax around other humans instead of isolating and opening space for rumination about all.the.things I could’ve done better in my presentations.

The Universe delivered.

There was no rumination that evening - just deep, reflective, raw conversation with a 33 year-old father of two who happened to sit down next to me poolside. A man recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol, celebrating two years sober.

As he shared his story, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities of our path to recovery. I joked with him that he must have seen my TEDX because some of the things he was saying, I shared, almost verbatim in that talk.

Both of us chasing worthiness. Both of us believing that love was something to be earned. Both of us feeling the weight of never-enough. Both of us now cracked open, navigating the space of surrender + self-love.

And then he said something that’s stayed with me. He said something to the effect of,

‘You used your pain to your advantage and achieved. I said F it and numbed with drugs - at least you chose something that served you.’

I let his words land. And, something wasn’t sitting right. Did it serve me?

I told him about my two-year long battle with depression, suicidal ideation and an eating disorder that hit just weeks after standing atop the Olympic podium. The latter being the most deadly of all mental illness. It could have killed me.

As I looked down at my Team USA jacket - with the Olympic rings on my chest, I understood what he was saying.

Those rings say to the world:

Look at me. I’ve made it. I’ve got it all figured out. I’ve achieved at the highest level.

And. I know now,

There’s always more to the story.

Struggle is universal. Sometimes it’s just hidden beneath the surface.

Because, we are human.

And being human means feeling + falling + failing.

I got to the top of the podium. I won a gold medal. And. I was really, really sick.

Because, there is no level of achievement that’s going to protect us from feeling pain. Not even winning Olympic gold.

Which is why Kelly Caitlin’s story - and this newest piece by Kent Babb, Driven to the end, resonates so deeply.

My story could have been her story. I’m grateful every single day that I found my way to Greg Harden’s office. I know our work together saved my life.

While I don’t know the details of Kelly’s life, only what’s shared in the news,

I do know that the undercurrents of perfectionism are eerily familiar.

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For a long, long time, I believed that I had to achieve to be loved. As if love was something to be earned. Hinged on conditions - if i just, then...

Through perfection.

Similar to Kelly, I believed rest was bad. Asking for help meant failure. Crying was weakness. More was always better.

I, too, had multiple journals and my own version of ‘ The Code’ - with rules I lived by.

Mistakes meant I was unworthy of love. So did second place finishes.

And so, I spent a huge part of my life chasing down dreams + checking off boxes.

Only to realize that getting there - hitting the mark, achieving the grade, winning gold - didn’t fill me and make me whole.

Achievement brought more relief than joy.

And it didn’t get rid of the feelings of unworthiness that showed up in the form of an inner critic who told me, that despite all the achieving, I still wasn’t enough…

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One of the biggest myths of perfectionism is that it drives our success.

Not eating for two days before my race at the Olympics certainly didn’t help me swim faster. Neither did refusing to take my inhalers for my asthma because, ‘weakness.’

I got to the top of the Olympic podium in spite of Perfectionism, not because of it.

Perfectionism sits underneath many mental illnesses, including substance abuse, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, mood disorders - and suicide.

And even though the data say otherwise, we still applaud and celebrate perfectionism as if it’s a positive attribute. Truthfully, I think our (collective) failure to call it what it is has to do with our obsession for achievement, at all costs. I also think it’s because we mistakenly clump together habits of high-performers (those who achieve AND feel fulfilled) with perfectionism.

Perfecting our craft is not the same thing as perfecting ourselves.

The former is focused on behavior; the latter on our identity + who we are in the world. The distinction critical. And can be life-saving.

In the words of Dr. Brené Brown:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

The illusion of perfection is that if we just try hard enough, we can achieve a desired outcome. Perpetuating the myths of the American Dream. Not accounting for factors that are beyond our control.

Perfectionism isolates, disconnects, judges fiercely and robs us from feeling joy.

And it can kill us.

It’s is a toxic and addictive cycle. Fall short? Just. Try. Harder.

Unlike drugs, alcohol, food, sex or social media, this type of addiction is often revered.

Addiction is woven into my DNA from both sides which is why my conversation poolside stirred something deep in my soul. All these years, I thought I had escaped it; I thought I had found a better way. The thing is -

We don’t need to be playing the game of comparison with addiction.

What we need is to dive underneath the surface. We need to choose courage over comfort and do the hard work of healing.

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Like Kelly, I was longing for love and connection and belonging - and I, too, thought they could be found atop podiums + inside of achievement.

What I know now:

Our achievements are a reflection of a journey. A deeper, more complex story than can be seen in any one tiny fragment of time - or post on social, or by any number.

Our worthiness of receiving love can’t be measured.

Because it’s not something we have to earn.

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On my way home from that trip, I stood in line behind a 15 yo girl who was flying solo for the first time. She, too, was in recovery. Celebrating one year. At 15.

As we walked to her gate, we talked about the hard work of feeling our feelings - and going to therapy. She shared that she always hated going, but then felt better afterwards. Me too.

We’ve got work to do. Big work.

And we can do it. We really can.

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I left Washington changed. Moved. Compelled. Called to continue this conversation.

I believe with every fiber in my being that greatness and fulfillment can coexist. And we have plenty of examples. It just might look different than we think it should.

It’s time we release our collective selves of these beliefs that are killing us.

It’s time to Turn Toward our emotions and equip ourselves with the skills + supports we need to positively cope with stress.

Our kids are counting on us.

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If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

 
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I’d love for you to join me in the I AM Challenge. It’s an adapted version of one of the first exercises I did with Greg Harden post-Olympics when I was navigating the darkness - wondering who I was in the world. Who I was supposed to be.

It’s a a free, five day journey of reflection, exploration and expansion to cultivate greater clarity, compassion and confidence. You’ll get an email a day - with a short video clip + challenge from me.

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Samantha Arsenault Livingstone is an Olympic Gold Medalist, high-performance consultant, mental performance coach, speaker, educator and entrepreneur. She is the founder of Livingstone High Performance, LLC., and two, multi-module online courses, the Rise Free Academy and Ride the Wave: A Bootcamp to Strengthen Our Emotional Agility — inspiring, empowering and equipping athletes, coaches and female leaders with the skills they need to become more mindful, courageous, resilient leaders.

In addition to private and group coaching, Samantha consults with teams and organizations on athlete wellness initiatives, leadership, strategic planning, rising skills and developing high-performance cultures. She is a certified instructor of Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement (MSPE) and as of September 1, 2019 will be an certified instructor of Mental Health First Aid. 

Take the five day I AM CHALLENGE and join Samantha’s private community space to link arms, connect + participate in her free challenges.

Samantha and her husband, Rob, live in the Berkshires with their four girls. To learn more about her offerings, go over to www.samanthalivingstone.com