I’ve had a lot of ambition my whole life. I didn’t understand my ambition, but knew I had it.
For a long time, I attributed this drive or “inner fire” to the reward system I experienced in childhood. I was good at sports and school, and by being good at those things, I received love and encouragement from my parents and the world at large.
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These experiences instilled in me a notion that if I was good at things, I’d get love.
For as long as I’ve pondered the question, this was my narrative for what caused me to try so hard to achieve in life.
It wasn’t until recently that my opinion shifted.
I have experienced a slew of health challenges since early 2020. At times, it has seemed never ending which at times was incredibly frustrating because I had been so diligent with the supposed inputs to health like diet, exercise, detoxification, and mindfulness for such a long time.
It feels like our culture talks a lot about how to treat illness, but I feel like I don’t hear as much why we get sick beyond people bitching about the food system. It’s kind of like there is an expectation that you get sick at this point.
And what about for all the people that have been eating organic, rabbit diets for years like me!? Why is my body seemingly on the decline age 33.
I wanted an explanation for this and a friend recommended the book “The Divided Mind” by Dr. John Sarno which illuminated what was actually going on. There is also a fantastic documentary called All The Rage about Dr. Sarno if you’re a movie person.
The premise of the book is that suppressed emotions ultimately cause illness. It does not deny physical abnormalities, but rather points to the conscious and unconscious mind being the driving force of disharmony and illness.
I knew that the conscious rejection of emotions could eventually result in illness from reading books like Anatomy of the Spirit, When the Body Says No, and The Body Keeps the Score. For example, if you’re sad about the loss of a loved one and just distract yourself instead of dealing with it, that could result in damage to your own health.
What I was less aware of was the power of the unconscious emotions. These are feelings that never even make it into our conscious awareness.
The big idea is that our ego diverts us from feeling certain emotions to protect ourselves from experiencing something our primitive psyche sees as a threat.
For example, maybe you were told as a kid that anger was bad or you saw your parents fight a lot and didn’t like it. This programmed you to avoid anger at all costs. So here you are, 34 years old, and someone screws up your order at Starbucks and instead of really allowing yourself to be angry, you feel annoyed for a second and then take out your phone to distract yourself. You don’t actually let yourself feel the rage and now the energy of anger sits in the reservoir of your unconscious.
The emotions which are really just energy, become buried and we carry them around unknowingly. The energy wants to release itself through embodiment, but our egos will do anything to avoid facing the pain or potential eruption from latent anger. So the psyche employs a primitive strategy of creating symptoms in our physicality in order to distract us from whatever challenging emotions lay dormant in the unconscious.
The only way to become free from the persistent symptomatology is to face and embody these emotions so they run its course or recognize the psychosomatic dynamic which is occurring.
I found this whole concept very compelling and fascinating.
What struck me even more was the archetypes of people who usually experience psychosomatic illness.
Most people who deal with psychosomatic illness either strive to be perfect in all areas of life or a “goodist” often at the sacrifice of their own happiness. They have a “Type T” personality where they exhibit one or two of these characteristics in force (or more):
- M motivated, achiever
- N nice, a goodist is someone who is driven to perform good acts
- O prefers order, not necessarily orderly
- P perfectionist, a people pleaser
- Q quick to judge
- R very responsible, conscientious
- S self-critical, one who is hard on oneself
Many of these have basically been me for 34 years!
We’re not saying that these traits bad or good. In fact, many of these characteristics are quite helpful in life. Here we are examining the route cause of why these personality traits exist and the potential unsuspecting implications for health.
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Why Are You So Ambitious?
What became apparent reading the stories about these people is the reason I’ve been trying so hard my entire life wasn’t because of the positive feedback loop in my childhood.
What it really came down to was a very deep seated and covert self worth issue.
To avoid feeling worthless, the ego strives to achieve and receive all sorts of external validation so that it can avoid or repudiate the feeling of worthlessness. Because all this effort and striving is so strenuous, this is often accompanied by an unconscious rage that everything has to be so hard.
When I first read about this dynamic, clues in my awareness started to emerge.
I remember in one of my bouts of sickness being unable to work and laying on the couch being angry that I couldn’t be accomplishing. I felt “worthless” relative to the state in which I was achieving or doing something to better myself.
What immediately became clear is that I felt worthless when I wasn’t employing a strategy to avoid it. The worthlessness was just always there buried in my unconscious mind. This meant that I didn’t actively experience the feeling or idea that I’m worthless very often, but that it exists and underpins my behavior without me even realizing it.
All the doing and achieving was an unconscious strategy that enabled me to avoid the complex.
I guess it never occurred to me that I could sit and do nothing and just fucking love life and myself all the same! I thought it was normal to feel lower self esteem if you weren’t being productive or accomplishing in life.
It also explained why whenever other people were having great success or achieving more than me in many facets of life, I’d often have an inner monologue that got down on myself or pushed me to do more.
Why couldn’t I just be incredibly joyous and happy for everyone in these moments? Why did these events have to make me feel inferior?
All this revelation was exciting, but also a lot to take in. Worthlessness is an incredibly charged word. When I think of worthlessness, I usually associate it with hopeless people hanging on by a thread not really doing anything in life.
I did not think it could be used to characterize someone who by all means has been “killing it” for most of their life. For a lot of my life I thought I was the most confident guy in the room?✓
I’d do bold things like approach strangers, start companies and lead people every chance I could get. I now see how so much of this behavior was actually a strategy that I was unaware that I was even running. And that my feelings of confidence and happiness were propped up by conditionality. The true inner state was low self esteem and I thought if I was perfect in every way I could avoid facing it. The whole thing was like a house of cards which is why controlling my life and trying to be perfect was such an imperative.
So why the hell did I feel worthless anyways?
Unlike manny examples in the book, I had loving and supportive parents and a revered life? I wanted to try and understand where this imprinting came from. So I decided to meditate on it over the next few days.
I started to focus my awareness on my childhood and then it came in.
“You’re a worthless piece of shit….you’re worthless!”
I was on the bus in 1st grade and an older kid named John M. yelled this at me. I can’t remember what provoked it, but I remember just sitting there and not knowing how to respond. He was in 4th grade and much bigger than me. I then remember him getting off the bus and yelling that I was worthless again while he walked towards his house as I looked out the window.
I remember feeling anger towards him, but don’t think I expressed it at any point nor told my parents. I was ashamed.
As far as I can tell, this was the initial imprinting that put this idea of me being worthless into my psyche. This memory and the feelings associated with it had conveniently been filed away by my mind so I never had to deal with it again until 18 years later!
I’m sure there might have been other things that might have contributed towards this concept of worthlessness. I don’t know. But from that point on, my whole strategy in life became striving to prove that I wasn’t worthless.
I now see that this was a full time job that the 5 year old boy in me didn’t want. Subconsciously, having to do all these things and deal with all this subtle pressure to be perfect made me angry even though I didn’t really feel the anger often? How could I?! I was so distracted by having to achieve and be the best that I didn’t have time to sit with emotions…and anger was an unacceptable emotion for good little boys!
What’s really interesting is when you look at my consciousness calibrations throughout most of my life, my predominant emotional state was anger.
I originally found this so perplexing because I really didn’t feel like an angry person. I was mostly pretty happy and felt like I had done a lot with the hand I had been dealt. The ambition and drive was celebrated everywhere I went.
Most people would probably tell you that I was upbeat and positive. That I was an optimistic person who just wanted to make the most of himself. And that’s what I thought too!
In retrospect though, I can now see the covert shades of anger and inferiority. The subtle undertones that were never investigated or acknowledged mainly because I didn’t even know they were there.
Up until this point, I was completely unaware of the extent to which our psyche could devise strategies to hide emotions in our unconscious. I was never able to understand ambition and put together that my inner monologue was based on the threat of inferiority vs. a positive feedback loop.
Once you realize all this, it might be jarring. The idea that you may think you’re worthless is threatening to the ego and personality construct it has worked so hard to build. It’s easy to reject or dismiss.
But if you see a hint of truth to what I just shared, I encourage you to be open to the idea and to have compassion for yourself. This is not an illness or disorder, but part of the human condition and experience just like the need to survive.
Hell, I was just listening to a podcast with Bradley Cooper who was discussing how “it took 46 years to overcome his self worth issues.” Some of the most accomplished people in the world are driven by the same exact thing without even knowing it, until something in their life forces them to face it. So hold your head high.
The 1st grade kid who had the world thrust upon them didn’t choose this experience. It just happened and was handled the best way I knew how at the level of evolution. The same is true for all of us.
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What Can You Do To Understand Ambition In Your Own Life?
This revelation inspired all sorts of questions in me.
Is it possible to be ambitious and not have a deep seated sense of worthlessness that you probably don’t even know exists?
Is this dynamic at the core of every ambitious person?
My experience is that sometimes we do things out of inspiration and joy, and other times we do things out of obligation. In many instances, we convince ourselves we are doing things because we like them, but really deep, deep down, we’re doing them because we like the temporary relief it provides from potentially feeling worthless.
The entire thing is a strategy we don’t even know we’re doing.
This was more or less me running my last startup. If anyone asked me I would have told you I loved what I was doing. I was fired up for many years. I mean if you’re hopping out of bed in the morning and working weekends because of how interested and obsessed you are, that means you must love it right…
Yes, I found parts of the experience thrilling at times, but I would not say it was motivated by inspiration and joy. Deep down what I really loved was having seeming control over any negative feelings, many of which I wasn’t even aware of. That was the #1 driver, completely unbeknownst to me at the time.
I now see that I must be wildly honest with myself to the best of my ability on what things truly bring me unconditional joy and inspiration.
The only instance I can see where someone might be ambitious and not have a latent worth issue, is where the strong desire to do something of great magnitude emanates from love.
Like helping the planet as quickly as possible because you can’t help yourself…not because you feel like you have responsibility to do so or because it will make you feel important or worthy.
My personal interest is to go from a predominantly ambitious person to a predominantly inspired person. Creating from inspiration, joy and love, doesn’t mean you don’t achieve things…there just isn’t this incessant monologue in your head driving you to act out of fear or obligation you can’t even see most of the time!
You can achieve monumental things on a low pressure timeline because you just fricken love it. And if you don’t, it’s all good.
Where to Go From Here
If what I just shared resonates, you may be thinking okay what the hell do I do with this.
If you’re unsure about how to understand ambition in your own life, these questions might inspire some introspection.
Can you sit for long periods of time doing nothing and feel good about yourself? Or do you need to have a strategy?
What about when you get sick and are unproductive? Do you get frustrated and angry with yourself?
Are you competitive?
Does any part of you feel inferior or like an inner monologue arises when someone else achieves something more than you or beats you in something?
What about when someone else you know gets the spotlight and you don’t? Are you happy and excited for this person or tend to direct negative self talk towards yourself?
If you can be totally joyous in all of these scenarios, it seems you have avoided the human condition of having a self worth issue. God bless you! It seems I was not so lucky.
But the beautiful news is with awareness comes the opportunity to heal and no longer be an unconscious prisoner to this invisible hand that drives your life.
I wonder how many entrepreneurs and high achievers out there are dealing with what I just described and have no idea. You don’t know, until you do, and then it all becomes so crystal clear.
I think that things like therapy can be helpful in that it drives awareness and intellectual understanding of these unconscious imprints and beliefs. But to truly move beyond this feeling for good, you must work at the energetic level and drain the energy behind the thought forms in your field of consciousness (inclusive of the body).
And since there might be many years of daily buildup, this may take many sessions of sitting with these thought forms and feeling into the sensory experiences in your body before you absolve yourself for good.
Finding the root imprinting can be helpful, but is not necessary. Perhaps it’s something to explore with plant medicine or deep meditation.
One thing that I found incredibly helpful was basically writing out my biography of all the formative emotional experiences and memories I’ve had in my life. Mine was the opposite of a highlight reel and forced me to recount as many times that I felt hurt or like I failed that I could remember. And as I did this more and more memories came up that I had completely forgotten about. Clear patterns of behavior emerged that were impossible to see before this exercise because they often had 5-10 year gaps. And as I’d write these out, my body would lock up indicating to me that I needed to sit with something and rid myself of the stuck energy I’d been unknowingly carrying around for all these years.
The idea here is not to live in the past or let that dictate your future. But rather to identify the patterns and suppression that occurred and liberate yourself from it so there isn’t an invisible hand driving your life.
If this sounds terrible there are simpler alternatives. Dr. Sarno, the author of The Divided Mind, believes that merely knowing about this phenomenon and your unconscious beliefs is enough to heal your physicality. He thinks that it’s actually quite atypical that one could remove the imprinting in the unconscious.
I’m not sure if he is adept at some of these more esoteric modalities of healing and expanding consciousness, but I tend to disagree. You can liberate yourself, and the liberation can be permanent. But you must be willing to have the courage to do the work.
Once you’ve done this, the work is the same as it always is. Observe your response to life through Karma Yoga and understand where there is resistance. I now know that when the ambitious striver arises or I get annoyed by not being productive, there might be the self worth patterns that might need addressing. And the more I do this, the freer I become.
And who is this I that feels worthless!?!? : )