Highly successful women can unconsciously choose to suffer because it feels good to feel bad

Successful women can fall into the trap of beating themselves up.

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Successful women can fall into the trap of beating themselves up.
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Laurence Dutton / Getty

  • Highly successful women have worked really hard their whole lives, but sometimes they can be at risk of suffering more unnecessarily.
  • According to relationship coach Cherlyn Chong, a lot of her high functioning clients don’t know how to relax.
  • This can be because they have separation anxiety from early trauma in their lives, so they feel comfortable with negativity.
  • When things in their life are tranquil, they get nervous because it feels unfamiliar. So they start to internally bully themselves with statements like “you’ll always be a failure,” “everyone thinks you’re a fraud,” and “he’s going to be just like your dad and he’s going to leave you.”
  • It’s hard to stop this negative spiral, Chong said, but it is possible. Clients just have to work on being kinder to themselves 1% more every day.
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One of Cherlyn Chong’s clients would never have time for her sessions. Instead of setting aside an hour, she’d be busy at church, at a meeting, or donating her time to charity.

“And I was like, do you actually care about your love life?” Chong, a coach who helps professional women recover from toxic exes, told INSIDER.

The problem, she said, is a lot of her high functioning clients don’t know how to relax.

“They’re busy touching their hair, they’re smoking,” she said of the women in her sessions. “It’s what happens when relaxation is what they really hate. Like if nothing is being done then the whole world is going to collapse.”

High achieving women are used to being on the ball all the time. They’ve worked out that in life, if they put in the hours and the effort, they will reach their goals. So it’s only natural they end up applying this logic to their romantic relationships.

Unfortunately, this is also why they sometimes fall for toxic abusers – they have learned in other aspects of life that if they work really hard on something, it will succeed. So they put more and more effort into a relationship, even if their partner is giving less and less.

“When high performing women are in a state of calm, they actually don’t like it,” said Chong. “We can send them to the yoga studio, and they wouldn’t be satisfied with just yoga. Actually, they’re never satisfied with anything. They want to go, go, go.”

She calls it the “eternal screaming,” where they’re always feeling the pressure of all their responsibilities, but not giving themselves the time to recharge.

Read more: Why high-achieving women can struggle to be as successful in love as they are in their careers

Sometimes hard work can actually be a form of suffering. And some high performing women unconsciously use it as a punishment to make them feel anxious.

“Let’s say somebody experienced her father abandoning her when she was 5 years old, which actually is the case with many of my clients,” said Chong. “Young minds are very susceptible to trauma like that.”

If that trauma is not resolved, every time she lets someone close, the memory of her dad leaving is going to crop up again, Chong said. It’s called separation anxiety, and it means believing everyone is going to leave, even when they promise they won’t.

Sometimes we're not kind to ourselves because it feels familiar.

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Sometimes we’re not kind to ourselves because it feels familiar.
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PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou / Getty

Rather than wanting to steer away from this anxiety, successful women may find they lean into it because it feels familiar.

“Unfortunately, every single time we choose to reinforce that belief or give into that belief, the brain and the body produces chemicals and thoughts that reinforce that belief,” Chong said. “So after 20 years of having this in your mind and in your body, you’ve actually now been conditioned and programmed to stay in a state of fear.”

A successful woman with separation anxiety can be the perfect storm. Not only do they work themselves too hard, but they can also feel comfortable when being fueled by negativity.

“When you’re too happy – when you’re not feeling guilt or sadness or anything too negative – the brain and your body actually don’t like it,” said Chong. “They want you to return back to your familiar chemical self that you have programmed for years.”

So to offset the unfamiliar feeling of peacefulness, they end up internally bullying themselves – “you’ll always be a failure,” “everyone thinks you’re a fraud,” and “he’s going to be just like your dad and he’s going to leave you.”

Read more: A relationship coach who believes women should date multiple men on rotation says these are the 7 things wrong with modern dating

Chong said the trap is assuming this negative thought spiral is fixed. In reality, you can choose to stop the internal bullying in its tracks if you learn to reframe your thoughts.

“We’ve always known it, so why should we choose anything else?” Chong said. “Its very hard. But this is why trying to shift 1% every day is important.”

Nobody can change their whole thought process immediately. But building on little improvements can lead to change, so she asks her clients to be 1% kinder to themselves every day.

Think of it like a flower, she said, which grows just a little taller than the rest of the plants around it. By reaching just a little higher, it has a better chance of taking in more and more sunlight. It’s a cumulative effect.

“Sometimes with these women, you actually have to take charge with them and give them a lot of tough love,” said Chong. “What I do is actually threaten to fire them if they don’t do it.”

In other words, Chong tells them they have to force themselves to take a step back and relax sometimes or she can’t help them, which they end up using as motivation.

But ultimately, you can’t force someone to take care of themselves.

“Just like with a personal trainer, it really is up to them to make it stick, with this 1% shift,” Chong said. “We can only undo the trauma up to the age that they are. The rest is up to them.”