Go-getter Gaithri Raj writes about healthy work environments and work-life balance for Go Get the World. You can reach her through our contact page with your questions or blog post ideas about this topic.
In my quest to Go Get The World, I relied heavily on the lessons I learned from my mother while growing up in Malaysia. She not only met her professional obligations as a respected teacher and was a respected member of our community, but she also raised me and took care of my brother who had a disability. To this day, I am in awe of how my mother did even half the things she did. By her example, she taught me to be a helper, to put other people’s needs first, and to work hard for the greater good of society.
These lessons served me quite well early in life. I earned many accolades and awards, including scholarships to study in the U.S. Most important, I made my parents proud, which is truly the singular goal of an Asian child.
I did not realize until much later in life that my sense of self-worth was so deeply tied to my achievements that I measured my worth through the eyes of my parents and not my own. I never suspected that such an approach to life and work could have a negative effect on my health. Until the day I realized I had to reconcile what I had learned in childhood with what I knew I needed to do to live a balanced, healthy adulthood.
So what happened? When I moved to America to attend college, I continued operating as I had at home, sacrificing sleep, good nutrition and anything else that might be considered selfish in my culture. And it worked! I earned two bachelor’s degrees and my master’s degree by age 22, and with a 4.0 grade point average. I immediately landed a job in my chosen career helping individuals with disabilities. I handled complicated client cases, cases that required extensive documentation, research, and court testimony. I coached poorly performing teams to successfully complete tasks that were difficult for seasoned employees. I improved the sub-par performance of multi-disciplinary teams across the state and met seemingly impossible deadlines.
The achievements piled up, and I kept getting promoted. Colleagues started to say, “If you give something to Gaithri, she’ll figure out a way to get it done.” Everything looked great…from the outside. But my friends and family saw a very different picture:
I was working 60-70 hour weeks to stay on top on work and family life, but did nothing to take care of myself.
I was tired, fed up with always getting the toughest assignments at work, and increasingly unhappy.
I developed migraines.
I suffered multiple bouts of pneumonia.
I lost my voice more than once.
And yet, despite these huge warning signs from my physical body, my internal drive said I had to keep going. My husband and friends urged me to cut down on my hours. But each time I considered it, I remembered my mom doing something far braver or stronger and I refused. At those times, I would remember how my mother would drive to my cancer-battling grandmother’s house three times a day to feed and bathe her, return home to tend to my brother, and then head off to teach classes. I told myself I had nothing to complain about.
So I kept going.
Until I read Ariana Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution. I found eerie similarities between me and the woman whose exhausting go, go, go approach to life eventually derailed her. I started asking myself why I was working so hard and helping everyone else but at the cost of my own self-care.
I finally accepted that I could never be like my mother and maintain a healthy work-life balance. I was ready to figure out how to take care of Gaithri for once. So, I devised a five-part action plan to help me focus on taking care of myself.
My physical health has improved tremendously since I adopted my new approach, and I feel a greater sense of balance in my life. I now know that I can take care of myself while still appreciating what my mother taught me. However, I also know that, although the skill sets she helped me develop were fundamental to my success, those skills needed to evolve in order for me to have a happy and healthy life.
My mother disagrees with my new outlook. She says that America has changed me. But I know that I changed me. And although I would love to have her support as I move toward a less-frenzied lifestyle, I know that if she doesn’t come around it’s okay. I’ve learned a thing or two about taking on challenges, and I welcome this one with open arms.