Content warning: suicide, self-harm. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
If someone would ask me, “Do you feel pressure to do what everyone else does?” my immediate response would be a resounding no! I’m not one to cave to other people’s expectations, and I’ve always thought of myself as an independent thinker.
Yet pressure comes in many forms. Even when it is subtle and covert, it can still powerfully influence our choices and shape our own self-perception and even self-worth.
Pressure often travels with its ride-or-die: expectation. In our achievement- and success-oriented culture, we are expected to do a lot and to do it well. We earn our worthiness around here, thank you very much! Expectations are often unspoken, but we are more than aware of them. These are the unwritten rules that, if followed, promise great rewards. Whether you are a stay-at-home or employed parent, a single woman, or a married man, you face cultural and societal expectations that, when met, increase your sense of accomplishment, desirability, social influence, and value. All these things do impact our self-worth and—dare I even suggest—our happiness.
In today’s world, there’s pressure to be a good wife and mother. You’ve got to raise those kids well—meaning well-rounded and involved in everything—so they have a shot at a decent college. Sure, you’re an educated woman, so you have your career, but maybe you need to start your own business or find a side hustle, because one job is clearly not enough—and besides, everyone’s got a side hustle. You always manage to fit in your regular barre or Pilates or—better yet— Peloton workouts. Sure, those might have to be at 5:45 a.m., but you gotta do what you gotta do. You know your why, right? Your word for the year? Your mantra?
Oh, and put healthy, gluten-free, dairy-free, taste-free meals that your kids will eat on the table every night. In your free time, go out to coffee with your friends and women you don’t know—or really like, for that matter—because mom friendships can make or break your kids’ social life. Volunteer at your kids’ school, especially on class party days, even if you have to call in sick to make it happen. Heck, be the class mom, because otherwise, your kids will complain that you are never there. Always return texts and emails and DMs from your four social media platforms promptly or else people will think you don’t care and you will lose followers. Post about snow days—which always means sledding, hot chocolate, and freshly baked snowflake cookies. Spend forever looking for the photo where it looks like the kids actually did the decorating (forget that they were in the kitchen only five minutes before your daughter kicked your son for touching her arm accidentally). From 4 to 8 p.m., drive back and forth to various activities—and, oh yes, don’t forget to reserve that last bit of gas in the tank when you hit the bedroom at 11 p.m. Your partner is waiting eagerly because it’s been days . . .
This is the hustle.
Does any one person have the patience, stamina, and ability to do it all?
We have been led to believe the more you hustle, the stronger, smarter, and more accomplished you are. We have to earn our worthiness, right? But don’t forget—the more you hustle, the more exhausted, disconnected, and distracted you are too.
Men feel the weight of the hustle as well as women. I’ve witnessed that struggle in my clients and even in my own husband: working in a culture where enough is never enough—and that means long days, long commutes, playing the game to get ahead. What do you do? What car do you drive? What zip code do you live in? Get to the gym, be strong. Emotions? Be vulnerable, but don’t feel too much—we don’t want that. Be a great partner, and with that extra time you have, show up at every school play, coach the basketball team, and be a great father too.
It’s all too much.
Do you think anyone is really crushing it? Or is it crushing us?
This pace is unrealistic for any human.
And because we are human, we make mistakes, we fall short, and we can’t meet these unrealistic expectations for ourselves on our best day, let alone our worst. We all drop the ball at some point trying to keep up the hustle. Hear me on this: we all are not enough sometimes.
Feeling not enough is part of the reason that we live with insecurity, and insecurity craves validation. We look for ways to affirm that we are OK, normal, and, most important, worthy. So we keep trying, no matter the cost to our own or our family’s mental and physical health.
So I like to imagine that I am making my own choices and thinking for myself. But occasionally, I stop and take a closer look at these moments, and I ask myself, “Why are we doing this?” Answers to why questions are often hard to find. We don’t always know why we do the things we do; we just know that we do them. Perhaps a better question—one that I love to use in therapy sessions—is “What is making me do this?”
According to a World Happiness Report, adolescents—a demographic that experienced a rise in life satisfaction and happiness from 1991 to 2011—experienced a sudden decline from 2012 to the present. Each year the report on adolescent well-being is worse than the one before.
Any working therapist can anecdotally affirm this is true. In 2019, it proved a challenge to find an adolescent therapist who had availability in their schedule and was taking new clients. By 2021, it was nearly impossible. Along with the decline in happiness, we saw an increase in depression and in suicidal ideation and self-harm, especially for girls and young women. The suicide rate is growing exponentially for kids aged seven to ten. That’s as young as first grade, people. These statistics also proved true across the pond, for children and youth in the United Kingdom.
If you’re a parent or caregiver, take just a minute to think about the kids you are raising; if you don’t have kids, think about the kids you know. Do their lives look anything like yours did when you were growing up? Do you remember what you were doing in the first grade? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t spending three or four hours on a screen. It doesn’t matter if you are twenty or seventy-five: there has been a marked change in the last several years, and it isn’t a good one. Colleges are recruiting kids earlier, sending information about their programs to students as young as the seventh grade. Kids in elementary schools have very little unstructured play or free time, which is vital for their social and emotional development. Playdates are scheduled and often supervised by a parent—one who has taken it upon themselves to structure the “unstructured time” with elaborate projects.
Seasonal sports are now practiced year-round, so kids who once played multiple sports have to choose only one—and this starts as early as the third grade. Many kids who do choose to play two sports per season experience the problem of overscheduling, as practices are often held several times a week. I know parents who spend three hours in their car several times a week driving their ten-year-olds to Russian math lessons. I know parents whose eight-year-olds attend outdoor soccer clinics in twenty-degree weather to get them ready for the travel team four years in advance. I know parents who have their fourteen-year-olds take SAT practice tests once a month to prepare them three years in advance for the real deal. As you can see, we have created a world where our kids are hustling too.
I will never forget when my then thirteen-year-old daughter, Natalia, schooled her therapist mama on the importance of balance.
That year, she had to decide if she was going to join a popular volunteer organization in our town. Volunteering sounds great, right? But many girls join this organization essentially to check off the “I’m a good person” box for college applications. I had received a text from a mother I didn’t really know offering to be Natalia’s sponsor so she could join (apparently you need one of those).
My friends and I were talking about whether adding yet another commitment to our kids’ overscheduled lives was a good thing. The response I consistently received was “Well, you know colleges love it.” A few friends whose daughters were years deep into this organization, however, vehemently discouraged me from doing it. “Seriously, you need this like you need another baby,” one told me. Oh, hell no; that was all I needed to hear. (We all need friends who can speak our language and give us perspective when we’ve lost it. Hold on to them: they are your people.)
I asked Natalia what she thought and if she wanted to join. She thought about it and said a firm no. “If people really don’t care about volunteering, then I don’t see the point of joining,” she said simply. “I am swimming five days a week, focusing on school, and I want some free time to spend with my friends. Some downtime. Maybe we can do some volunteer work as a family like we did on Thanksgiving.”
I didn’t accept this answer at first. I challenged, “Are you sure? Many of your friends are doing it. You kind of have to decide now. I don’t want you to regret it.” Nice one, anxiety-specialist mom.
But she didn’t flinch. “I’m sure.”
And she was right. This kid has always had a calm confidence that surprises me. She made her choices, avoided drama, and was not easily swayed by what everyone else was doing. She grew up having a new sibling every couple of years since she was two years old. I credit her strong sense of autonomy to my preoccupation with the busyness of younger kids. (That’s certainly better than living in the mom-guilt of worrying that she was neglected; talk about convenient reframing.) It’s amazing what happens when we step back and let our kids figure things out themselves. And when you take that step back, pay attention: the kids often become our teachers.
Meanwhile, Charity Tiger Mom was texting me regularly, asking if we had made a decision about joining the organization—I mean, like almost every day. I was starting to wonder if she got a kickback from our membership. I politely told her that Natalia was committed to swimming and her schoolwork and did not want to take it on right now. That should be enough, right?
This well-meaning, surprisingly persistent woman I hardly knew countered my non-offer. For real. “Oh, well so many of the girls in her middle school class who swim are doing it,” she texted. “And BTW—it would look great on her college application.”
And with that, she threw the gasoline on my Sri Lankan American fire. Was she implying that my kid was less than because she didn’t want another commitment? Didn’t this woman know not to mess with a brown mama’s babies? And why did I even care? As I said, I didn’t even know this woman! Why couldn’t I just calmly take this in stride and say, “Thanks, but we’re good!”
Yet deep down, I knew my reaction had nothing to do with this woman. I was not reacting to her; I was reacting to my feelings about pressure. This is exactly the type of pressure that I see in the office: expectations that force kids to take on too much. And then we’re surprised that they suffer from debilitating anxiety when they cannot meet the demands of their choices (or ours). And who is left to “fix it” and answer parents’ questions, like “How many sessions do you think this will take?”
So I was angry—both on behalf of my own daughter (who couldn’t care less, by the way) and on behalf of my stressed-out, anxious teenaged clients. I don’t remember what I texted back, but I’m sure it was strong. Whatever I wrote, I figured it was better than the middle-finger emoji. Like any calm, mature professional, however, I did take to social media to air my grievance and posted this:
Please respect other parents’ decision to NOT talk to their seventh grader about what looks good on their college application. OK? Thanks!
Your Local Therapist Trying to Prevent High Schoolers from Stress- Induced Panic Attacks in Ninth Grade
At the end of the day, I’m sure that that woman had good intentions. And while I was annoyed at her approach, I’m sure I have my own ridiculous expectations that must make my own kids feel the exact same way.
As parents, we have to do better than this. If we haven’t found our own happiness in striving for attainment, why do we keep doing it and reinforcing it in our children? Have you seen that definition of insanity that says it’s doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result? I cannot think of a better description for what we are seeing, year after year. Trying harder to meet the demands of these terms will not bring us any closer to contentment. Pair this with the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide increasing exponentially at younger and younger ages. We are not getting any happier. Clearly we are not getting healthier either.
The consequences of doing things the same way are too high now. When one out of four college students is contemplating suicide, change is no longer an option; it is an emergency. We owe it to our youth, and we owe it to ourselves.
As you know if you have ever been in therapy: change is not easy, but it is always possible. We can’t always change our situation, but we can always change how we perceive it and how we respond to it. This choice is at the core of finding true contentment. The process might be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable at first. I do believe, though, if we are open to seeing things in a new light, we will find a healthier way to satisfy our truest desires.
Even if this hustle culture remains somewhat out of our control, finding peace and calm in the midst of it is possible. Few of us have the option of escaping our lives for months on end to find meaning. You don’t need a monastery in Nepal, a costly yoga retreat, or weeks in meditative silence. Although those places and experiences are of great value, they are just not in the cards for most of us.
The good news is contentment is closer than you think. Yes, it will require awareness, intention, and persistence. But as I tell my clients, change does not have to be drastic to be effective. Given the pressure and the hustle, finding contentment might feel like a battle, but I assure you: this is one worth fighting for.
This is an excerpt from This Book Won’t Make You Happy chapter 2: “Crazy.”