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  • Sharon Cabana, MA, LMFT

It’s Not About You: The Lonely Ego of Exceptionalism (Part 1)

Okay, let’s be real for a second before jumping in to this blog post. This is not an appealing title. It’s not even an easy topic. It took me a long time of mulling before I was ready to tackle it. The desire (and fear) about doing so is real. It wasn’t until my own therapist showed me my shadows that I realized how often I see this in my work with my clients. What keeps us in patterns of behaviors that hurt us? How do we break these cycles? There are a lot of answers and factors to consider with these questions. In fact, disclaimer here, there are too many for me to expound upon in a single blog post. Life is, after all, complicated.

As children, we absorb lessons from the world around us. We learn how to negotiate our relationships from family, social networks, and from legacies and lessons passed down from generation to generation. I often liken ourselves to computers; our minds and our hearts are the metaphorical harddrives. We all have basic programming--survival, attachment, etc. However, we are also vulnerable to “viruses,” negative programs that condition us to guilt, shame, low self-worth and other soul wounds. Depending on our family system and social context, we may grow up taking on the responsibility of emotional or physical caretaking for others in these systems. We may learn that our voices do not matter or that it’s not safe for them to be heard. We may learn that who we are is not desirable, that love is conditional, and that we are not entitled to our own joys and life choices.

If you had asked me a few years ago (and indeed one of my graduate professor’s did), how I would describe myself, I would have said, “an obsessive-compulsive, anal retentive, control freak with a paranoid fear of failure.” Yeah. It was a lot. I had learned throughout my life that my needs were secondary to the emotional, physical, and social needs of others around me. From early on, I learned to keep my feelings to myself, developing the mantra “I am the steel-faced servant of grace and dignity. I shall not cry.” In a world where emotional capacity was limited, there just wasn’t space for my emotional landscape. This contributed to a vulnerability to abuse and toxic patterns in relationships, even the ones I once considered my closest. It constructed my undergraduate experience, and It even bled into work relationships where I disproportionately took on (and was assigned) work assignments compared to my coworkers. I struggled with setting boundaries and maintaining them. I gave everything my all because I was convinced I had to, was, in fact, obligated to do so, and that catastrophes of a grand order would occur if I did not.

In time, I would learn that these catastrophes were never going to come to pass. When I left my first graduate program to pursue a more value-congruent life, my old advisor warned me that the field of anthropology would suffer irrevocably for my decision. It was my obligation to “save” (seriously, direct quote here) the field. Despite the racing heart and hours of endless internal terror at defying my academic overlord, I left. No surprise, the field kept going and the catastrophic contamination from perceived academic enemies never came to pass. Here’s a secret: It never does.

It’s this programming of obligation, this sense of not being entitled to our own joys, integrity, well-being, or health that fosters so much pain in our lives. It can lead us to stay in jobs where we struggle with horrific burnout, where we are overwhelmed and exhausted. Obligation makes it hard for us to request a day off. It’s impossible. They need us. There’s too much work to be done. There’s no one that can cover for me. I will just have to make-up more work when I come back. And most insidiously, No one can do it but me.

There are systemic factors that contribute to this. In mental health, agencies can require 20-25 billable hours of productivity per clinician, per week. Due to cancellations, late arrivals, and emergencies, in order to achieve this an average clinician may need to book 30. The rest of the week is meetings, trainings, paperwork, and outreach. And ten hours a week is not enough when you are coordinating with medical providers, schools, other agencies, and crisis lines for 30 clients. There are pay differentials and inequity based on race, gender, and educational opportunities. There are political, social, and economic factors that contribute to patterns of trauma, both intergenerational and concurrent, that make us so very vulnerable to burnout. Added to the programmed sense of obligation, these systemic factors are a dangerous cocktail that can negatively impact our careers, our health, and our overall well-being.

When added to the systemic factors, the obligation/perfectionist program yields another, more insidious virus that can contribute to our sense of entrapment in these systems- exceptionalism. Enmeshed within the labyrinthian networks of our inner landscapes, we learn that we can survive by “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps” and giving 120% to every task we undertake. We learn that we have to do this. In fact, sometimes, due to the inequity and inequalities built into our social contexts such as institutional racism, sexism and anti-LGTBQ+ bias, we literally do not have a choice. Anything less generates both a real and experienced fear of termination, negative evaluation, pushback, and loss. Conversely, these programs also set us up to fail. The standard of perfection is impossible to meet and inevitably leads to physical, spiritual, or mental burnout.

The hardest part of exceptionalism, however, is what I call “the lonely ego of exceptionalism.” There is a secondary gain to exceptionalism, the concurrent and consequent benefit we receive when we actually do the impossible, which, inevitably, we do. Sometimes for years. It is, after all, about survival. Often, I hear clients telling me that they cannot delegate obligations at work. There is a sense that good leadership and good productivity requires taking every obligation on for oneself. Clinicians take on too many clients or projects at work. Nevertheless, when those projects are completed, when every task is done to our standard, when we know that the cogs in our proverbial machines are running smoothly, we feel a sense of accomplishment, familiarity, and relief. We have complied with our obligation programming. As difficult as the tasks have been, we can finally breathe to know that we gave our all to make things work. And we do it, over and over again.

But it’s not sustainable. We know that.

Instead, we need to recognize our own secondary gains to the obligation programming. We need to acknowledge our own giving hearts, our own programs, and the ways in which these programs contribute to us staying too long in systems that cause us harm. It’s not an easy journey. The very idea of secondary gain can bring up shame and guilt. How did this happen? How do we defy the viruses so seamlessly downloaded and exploited for years? What will happen if we do? How do we cope with the perceived failure of not being able to live up to the sense of obligation?

The first step is to begin the mindful journey of recognizing our individual programs with non-judgement. These programs are not inherently good or bad. They just are. What we do with them can have both a negative or positive impact on our lives. The second is to activate and cultivate deep self-compassion. We are all the products of the systems in which we are born and nurtured. Our work on our life journey is to discover ourselves both because of and despite these systems. This means that sometimes we have to take a hard look at things that are working, and not working, in our lives. It takes time to recognize harmful patterns. It’s going to take time to change them. Most importantly, is to remember that as a human being, we are the epicenter of our own existences. There will always be another project, another person in need, another task that we know, because of our array of experiences and expertise, we can do well. However, in order to care for others, we must start with ourselves. To be truly connected to others, we must surrender the lonely ego of exceptionalism, foster true self-compassion, and embrace our humanity and vulnerabilities to live full and healthier lives.

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