The Burden of Greatness

When artists create masterpieces and bestsellers, they feel an unrealistic expectation to repeat the miraculous. The same is true for many high-achieving women.

This obsessive pursuit can lead to great accomplishments. It can also lead to frustration, exhaustion and a disconnection from ourselves and our emotions. No doubt this has an effect on our relationships as well.

For two decades, I willingly sacrificed my life for my work. Nothing could get in the way of my success. At the age of forty, people saw my home, my cars, and my possessions and defined me as a successful, brilliant woman. They did not see that I was numb when working, bored when on vacation, and barely existing beyond fatigue.

In both my research and my work with female leaders, I have found an increasing number of women giving up their peace of mind. In our effort to “have it all” we think we need to do it all.

The problem started about fifty years ago when it became important to bring up girls with the notion that they could accomplish anything they put their minds to. To compensate for centuries of holding women back, the message hit girls with a vengeance.

Now there is a revolution going on as women gain more intellectual power, financial self-sufficiency and authority in the business world. At the same time, there is another revolution going on in our heads as we obsessively pursue our next great accomplishment.

I have come to call this phenomenon the “Burden of Greatness.”

It is wonderful believing in our greatness. But having the goal of “being great” is as hard to define as it is to achieve. There is always “the next great thing” to master. As a result, we are always looking for the elusive “something more” to direct our life, which leaves us feeling restless and incomplete.

This restlessness, along with the drive to excel, either shuts down our emotions or we channel them toward our chosen goals. Instead of experiencing the fullness of life, we live in a frenzy of email, chores, and to-do lists. We obsess about what we need to do differently in the future and in idle moments we play the “if only” game with the past.

If you recognize the Burden in yourself, it is likely your gifts of intelligence, resourcefulness, courage, and determination have also been a burden. Some days you wonder if it is all worth it. If you have children, you feel guilty for not spending more time with them. You hunger for a day of rest and long for a chance to pamper your body. You laugh when someone suggests you need life balance. The best you can do is balance your energy as you go about your busy day. You can still love your friends, your partner, and your children, but you know there will always be an internal struggle about how you show your love.

I have spent the last fifteen years waking up my senses. On good days, I choose my work based on what I have defined as my purpose and say “no” to everything else. When I am buried under a to-do list, I prioritize and let some things go with no guilt. My exercise and fun time can’t be compromised. These are the good days.

I have to make decisions to live like this every day, sometimes every hour, so the old days don’t creep back in.

In order to get some control over my life, I had to explore the dark side of my inheritance of excellence by asking myself some very difficult questions. When I find myself working too hard and filling in my free time with tasks or planning, I ask myself:

Who would I be if I were to stop everything and give voice to my heart? What have I imprisoned that wants to be free?

What if I didn’t have to do everything? Who will I then be?

How can I succeed without sacrificing my peace of mind? Can I stop and enjoy my life right now?

These questions, and others like them, have initiated powerful discussions for my clients as well as for me. The quicker you admit to carrying a burden of greatness, the sooner you can have some peace of mind.

You can still search for something more, you can still create amazing things; you can still be the incredible leader others will follow. But while you are on this road, look for the beauty along the way. Open your heart as well as your mind. Your life is waiting.

Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D. is the author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. She is a professional coach and leadership trainer who works within a variety of industries and around the world. Read more about her and her work at For a free report “Standing at the Junction – How to Become your ‘Next’ Self”, send an email to

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