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The Unhealthy Side Effect Of Being Ambitious

Dinorah Nieves, Ph.D.
December 21, 2018
Image by W2 Photography / Stocksy
December 21, 2018

I was in my early 30s by the time I realized that I had become addicted to my own ambition. Prior to that, I would have just said that I was goal-oriented, a go-getter, a self-starter, a hard worker. I can go on and on with synonyms; on my résumé, I describe myself as a "motivated high achiever that delivers results." And sure, I was definitely a track star in this rat race of life. The problem was, I kept moving the finish line.

Every run took me further into different landscapes that introduced me to new possibilities that turned into new hopes, and it wasn't long before I had set my heart on new ambitions. This happened so frequently that running became a lifestyle, and goals started to feel more like small rest stops on some perpetual race against time that I'd lose if I slowed down.

If this sounds like you, then you might be suffering from an ambition addiction just like I did. "Driven" can quickly turn to "obsessed," and before you know it, you've spent most of your days and nights in pursuit of the life you want rather than in awe of the life you have.

It's time to take a breath.

Don't let your prophetic vision and strong work ethic turn into an insatiable thirst for more. It will color everything in the here and now as "not enough" and keep you from enjoying the fruits of your labor and the grace of your blessings. That's how we end up successful without being happy and then shocked that the former came without the latter.

How can you be both ambitious and satisfied?

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it is possible to be both ambitious (wanting to be better) and satisfied (completely content with where you are). You can love your life and still be in the midst of constantly recreating it. How, you ask?

Here are four steps that helped me recover from ambition addiction and learn to really enjoy my successes:

1. Take time to celebrate what you've accomplished.

Make lists in your mind or on paper of the many things that have gone well, of the important lessons you've learned, and of all you have already achieved. Don't compare yourself to other people, don't place mental asterisks or downplay your accomplishments, and definitely don't dwell on the rest of the things you have yet to do. Focus on what's been done. Take time to give yourself a pat on the back. A great way to do this is to share one of your successes with a loved one and maybe even celebrate that success, whether with others or just by treating yourself to a great meal or a night off. Allow yourself to feel pride.

2. Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness.

You probably hear this word so much it starts to lose meaning—but the truth is, being mindful of yourself, your inner dialogue, and your present circumstance is almost always the key to finding contentment and catching behaviors before they turn from nourishing to draining. At the end of the day, the only person who can change your attitude, reframe your point of view, or open your mind to a more positive way of living is you.

Moving away from your tireless race toward your goals starts with keeping your state of mind focused on when and where you are now. Practice living in a state of heightened awareness of the present moment. When you catch yourself planning and prepping for the future, look over to the person next to you, make eye contact, and smile. Take a deep breath and inhale the scents in the air. Listen to every and any sound that surrounds you. Be in the moment more often. Over time, you'll train your brain to stay grounded in the now instead of constantly trailing off to fret about the future.

3. Exercise kindness.

Ambition can inspire a certain type of "cut-throat"-ness that keeps you disconnected from others, seeing ourselves as separate and busy. Don't fall into the trap of believing that you can't be bothered with another, that you're "going places," and that you can't stop to lend a hand. We are all related, connected in some way and here for one another—to teach each other, to join in our shared humanity, and to enhance our soulful experience. If you allow yourself to nurture those relationships, you'll find that the research-backed high of showing kindness to others and the warmth of true interpersonal connection will satisfy you in a way that no goal post ever can.

4. Be fun.

Notice I said, "Be fun." That means you shouldn't just have fun—you should embody it. Remember the things that once brought you joy, or go out and try things that you've never dared to do before. Start a new adventure that isn't tied to your personal or career ambitions—one without an end in mind but instead with the journey itself as the prize. Learn a weird new creative talent. Do things that make you laugh. Take goofy pictures.

For the ambitious, all this might sound frivolous or like a "waste of time"—but that's nonsense. That's your addiction talking. Experiencing joy and thrill is the entire purpose of life. In your lowest moments or in your final ones as you look back on your years in old age, you're not going to think about how many presentations you aced, books you published, or dollars you have stashed away. You're going to think about moments, memories, and people that made you smile.

So let there be moments—months even—when you give yourself permission not to take things so seriously. In the end, all you have is how you feel, so you might as well do things that truly make you feel alive inside.

Dinorah Nieves, Ph.D. author page.
Dinorah Nieves, Ph.D.

Dr. Dinorah Nieves (aka Dr. D) is a behavioral scientist, personal development coach, and consultant for OWN TV's Iyanla: Fix My Life. She works with clients across the country, providing tools to become healthier, happier, and more productive by shifting their thoughts and behaviors that block them from leading fulfilling, balanced lives. Her book, LOVE YOU: 12 Ways to Be Who You Love & Love Who You Are (Latina edition available), is available now. Find her at