Danielle Aubin, LCSW
No, you can't solve your mental health issues by just working harder
For a lot of highly successful people, they have been able to solve most of their problems by just studying or working harder or longer hours. When they reach a point in their life where they can no longer ignore the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges or stress, they are left feeling unprepared. That is because mental health challenges are not something you can just "push through."
Working hard can provide people with the satisfaction of getting good results such as higher paying jobs or promotions. Many people stake their lives and careers on their ability to push through discomfort and work harder than their peers. This can serve them for a while but trauma, stress, and lack of self-care can eventually impact their lives to a point that they cannot manage it alone. Their go-to method, working harder, simply doesn't help them feel better.
I recently watched the Disney movie Encanto with my family. I couldn't help but see the similarities between Luisa and many overachieving people that come to therapy. Type-A (aka people who are overly ambitious) people who have gone to highly rated colleges and are high achievers are generally stumped when they find themselves dealing with debilitating anxiety or depression. They try to just spend more time at work or stuff the feelings down but it just gets worse and worse. They are faced with a reality that is very uncomfortable, the reality that despite being hard workers, they cannot control everything in life.
A lot of people with a type-A personality spend a significant amount of effort trying to make life predictable and moving forward toward "success". Any setbacks are met with a great level of anxiety and frustration. This is similar to Luisa in Encanto. She spent her life depending on her strength to help her with every problem. If she lost her strength, she would have no other way of dealing with life. The character faces this issue in the movie when her strength is temporarily decreased and she learns that she really needs to rest more and receive more.
The reality is that, despite being high achieving people, no one can push their body and mind beyond what is healthy. If you stuff down your emotions, you will eventually experience the negative effects of it. What we resist, persists. The only way to heal is to face what needs to be healed and do the slow, sometimes painful work of healing. Dr. Gabor Mate writes in the book When The Body Says No "The core belief in having to be strong enough, characteristic of many people who develop chronic illness, is a defence. The child who perceives that her parents cannot support her emotionally had better develop an attitude of “I can handle everything myself.” Otherwise, she may feel rejected. One way not to feel rejected is never to ask for help, never to admit “weakness” — to believe that I am strong enough to withstand all my vicissitudes alone."
The world we live in is toxic. There is toxic stress everywhere and even those people we consider "successful" are stressed, anxious, and depressed. The more they achieve, the more pressure they continue to put on themselves. When they reach a point where they cannot stand it one minute longer, they wind up coming into therapy. They come into therapy after spending years pushing themselves to be hyper-independent and successful at the expense of their mental health.
Working hard is part of the problem, it cannot solve the problem that it created in the first place. Overachievers need to learn how to let themselves rest. They need to feel worthy of love even when they aren't pushing themselves to the limit 24/7. They need time to heal, slowly, from the wounds of the past which caused them to need to be so hyper-independent in the first place. They need the time and space to be mindful and present. Working hard and crushing it are not mental wellness tools. Pressure may help with getting a promotion but it does not solve depression and anxiety.