Potential. I have a fixation on that word since I learned its definition in elementary school.
If we refer ourselves to the Oxford Dictionary, potential when used as a noun is ” the possibility of something happening or being developed or used”, or “qualities that exist and can be develop”. The origin of the word comes from the late Latin word potentialis, derived from potentia, “power” and from potent, “being able”.
So basically, it means having the capacity to accomplish something, to develop a certain quality.
Back to elementary school. As I was already getting good grades back then, I got into thinking that I had a greater potential than my fellow friends (I know, how foolish) and started to get obsessed with the idea of developing this wonderful potential to its maximum. Otherwise, what a waste it’d be (and therefore my life, and myself too).
The pressure was on. It wasn’t coming from my parents, neither from my teachers. I was the torturer, I was the one doing it all. I became uberperfectionist, which led to a lot of anxiety.
The downside of being your best self
Looking around me, I believe I am not the only one to feel that pressure. Googling “Develop Your Full Potential” got me about 112 000 000 resultats in less than 30 seconds. We want to be great, we want to succeed, and the measure of success these days isn’t only money. It’s not only anymore about how much you make a year, or how fast you move up the career ladder, but also if you are living a passionate life. I love the idea of living in the grey, the idea that there is no more boundaries between my “work life” and my “personal life”, that I am having an amazing time being the very best version of myself.
However, the thrive to be our best selves often comes with the pressure to be that amazing version of ourselves. As we encourage people more than ever to develop their full potential, we are also more than ever implying than they should do it, that they are responsible of their success and happiness. This pressure for self-accomplishment is found everywhere, from articles telling you that you are wasting your time at work if you’re not passionate about your job, or that you should be discovering your talents and listening only to your heart.
“Should is a dangerous word. Someone once told me there is no word for should in Spanish. Is this right? Surely, though, there is a Spanish way to say I feel like crap because I’m not living up to my potential. After all, Spanish is the language of Catholic guilt. Should is the American way of putting ourselves down in the name of the need to impress other people.” – Penelope Trunk, Living Up to Your Potential
This constant pressure is what some researchers consider to be the cause of depression and anxiety. Alain Ehrenberg, a French sociologist, firmly believes that the urge to perform is the foundation of depression in our society where the standards are now to be responsible of our lives and to take initiatives. Depression would be the side effect of having to gather our energy to become someone (ideally ourselves), when in fact it’s not always possible at the moment. We are bombarded with the message that we are responsible of our own destiny, yet we don’t always see how that super-version of ourselves will actually take form. We cannot rely anymore on outside guidelines to tell us that we are ok, that we are enough. We now have to define our own satisfaction grid, define our own objectives, to set ourselves up for success.
Some days, it’s wonderful, we have so many ideas, so many possibilities. On other days, it might get overwhelming though. We are not always up for more challenges, we are not always ready to take over the world. And if these days become more and more frequent, but you stick to your idea of become that superman/woman, I guess that’s where depression comes in.
Depression and success: the surprising combo
Even if you do become successful, you are not necessarily less at risk to suffer from depression. In fact, it might be quite the opposite. Some studies linked depression to being in a position of authority, while others have demonstrated that depression is twice more common among corporate leaders than among the general population.
“No one, no matter how richly or simply one lives, is immune.” – Alice G. Walton, Why The Super-Successful Get Depressed
Looking at the different causes for this preponderance of depression among C-suite executives, we can definitely see a pattern here. Linking self-esteem with a successful career, not having enough time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life, fear of failure, a tough industry and a sense of meaningless role are potential causes for depression among the successful leaders. If we make the assumption that nowadays the pressure is on more and more people to become their best selves, we can also make the assumption that these causes are also the ones that are going to get them more depressed. And since we know the possible causes, we can act upon them to get better.
Releasing the pressure
I firmly believe the only way to live the authentic and vibrant life you deserve is to release the pressure. There is no other way around.
These days, I choose to see potential not as something I have to fulfill, but more as possibility. It is not linear, I am not clibbing up the “ladder of my potential”. Actually, I have more than one potential, since I have potential in the multiple aspects of my life. I have potential as a Communications Advisor, I have potential as a Master’s Degree student, I have potential as a daughter/sister/friend/girlfriend, I have potential as a cyclist, as a yogi, as a runner, I have potential as a human being…I basically have a potential infinity of potentials. I can try anything, and I’ll have potential for that new activity as well.
There is potential everywhere, and that’s why life is so exciting. But I have to accept the fact that I have limited resources, and that I cannot try to develop myself in all those areas of my life at the same time. Just like I would be crazy to want to read every book on this planet even though I love reading, I cannot think of a way to develop myself to my full potential in all aspects of my life. I have to make choices, focus on my strenghts, and embrace the path as much as the result, and maybe even a lot more. Because no matter how much you will develop yourself, once you reach your goals, there are still more objectives to thrive for. There will always be. That’s life. But we also know that we can only seize the present moment. So take a breath, and enjoy all the potential in your life, within and outside yourself, for the world of possibilities it represents to create the life you want, but without the pressure to get there. Maybe instead of chasing goals, we should think about implementing systems?
You are amazing just the way you are, right now, in this very moment. You are enough, more than enough. And if you choose to pursue an objective, live it as an experience, with a curious mind. Taking responsibility of your happiness should live you empowered, not overwhelmed. As soon as you realize that you start feeling discouraged, bring to mind that you also have the power to choose where you set the bar. Whenever I get anxious, I take it as a signal now. I look at my thoughts, and often realize that I was starting to give myself higher expectations, expectations I was more stressed than excited to meet. I only have to apply this simple trick, release the pressure, to see the anxiety go.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
Make it fresh, make it fun, it is your life.
Although I am a firm believer of the idea of following your dreams and living a passionate life, I also believe that the pressure that some of us put on ourselves to be these amazing people is too much. We are already amazing. And it’s okay if you don’t have this fantastic job and have to work to pay your rent, it’s okay to not spend all your nights and weekends studying to get a Master’s Degree and simply watch Grey’s Anatomy, and it’s okay to not have the energy to start your own business and be an intra/entrepreneur. It is okay to be yourself, the way you are, right now.
You are enough, more than enough, just as you are now, in that very special minute. Take a moment, breathe, and enjoy.
Potential as in a world of possibilities
These days, I choose to see potential not as something I have to fulfill, but more as a range of possibilities. It is not linear, it is not specific to one domain, since I have potential in every aspect of my life. There is potential everywhere, and that’s why life is so exciting! And just like I would be crazy to want to read every book on this planet even though I love reading, I cannot think of a way to develop myself to my full potential in all aspects of my life. I have to make choices, focus on my strenghts, and embrace the path as much as the result, and maybe even a lot more.
Therefore I’m inviting you today to release the pressure, and enjoy all the potential in your life, within and outside yourself, for the world of possibilities it represents.
It took me more than 15 years to uncover the truth: I could release that pressure myself if I wanted to. I was the one in control. And that’s what I’m applying to my daily life since then. As soon as I feel the anxiety rising, I identify the source of it, which is 99% of the time the high expectations I am giving myself. And then, the magic happens. I lower my expectations, and immediately feel released.