Why Accomplishment Often Leaves Us Feeling “Empty”

How to heal that longing, at last.

Posted May 11, 2019

Konrad Lembcke via photopin (license)
Source: Konrad Lembcke via photopin (license)

I’d wished . . . hoped . . . prayed . . . for that beyond-all-of-my-wildest-dreams moment.

And one night, it happened.

Twice.

At age 16, I did something that made history. I won both the Ballet and Modern Dance Championships at a prestigious competition in Cape Town, where I grew up.

My double-win was a big deal.  

No, actually . . . it was a huge deal. 

The next morning, a gigantic photo of me (8½” by 11”) was featured in the local newspaper. There I was, leaping across the rocks on one of the most exquisite beaches in the world, on the tip of South Africa—with the wind blowing through my light chiffon dress and my thick, waist-length hair. I looked glorious and triumphant.  

The headline read: “SUZANNE DANCES TO DOUBLE TRIUMPH!”

Back to that night: The applause . . . the cries of “Congratulations!” . . . the hugs . . . the compliments . . . the flowers . . . it was a total blur. 

With all that adoration swirling around me, I should have felt like a champion. 

And I did . . . for about an hour.

But what I remember most about that night was the way I felt after all the hysteria had died down. How I felt at bedtime, after my family had gone to sleep. Alone in my room. So lonely, anxious . . . and empty.

I spent hours lying there alone in the dark, until the emptiness became unbearable. Then I had to fill the emptiness, the only way I knew how: with food.

So that’s how I celebrated my incredible, history-making double-victory: bingeing alone in my room, soothing myself with food.

My achievement didn’t make me feel “better.” It accentuated my feelings of emptiness.  

Have you experienced this phenomenon, too? 

Unfortunately, it’s very common. Many of us do.

Maybe you got a book deal—a lifelong dream!—but then immediately sank into depression. (“Now what? What if my book is terrible? Where do I go from here? Maybe I’m a fraud....”)

Or maybe your business had its first highly profitable year—incredible!—but the success left you feeling desolate. (“What if I can’t keep this up? What if next year, my profits plummet? What if my clients decide they no longer need me...?”)

Or maybe you won a significant award—fabulous!—only to discover that it didn’t really “change” anything. (“I got exactly what I wanted—why don’t I feel different?”)

There’s a reason that “accomplishment” often leaves us feeling “empty”—and it’s actually very simple.

Compliments, prizes, awards, good grades, money, and other sources of “external validation” make us feel great for little while, but ultimately they’re not filling or satisfying.

Because they’re not reliable. They can be given—but taken away just as easily. And it feels like there’s never “enough.”

It’s like being in a relationship with someone who gushes about how much they love you, but then won’t return your calls for five days. It’s enough to make you crazy, trying to “recapture” that lost affection . . . trying to get “full” again, with a dose of their affection . . . it’s an agonizing cycle.

And the only solution is to find a new source of self-worth. A consistent, reliable source that comes from within.

To begin? Start noticing when thoughts like this come into your head: "I want to accomplish _______, because then, I will deserve to feel _______." 

Ex. "I want to accomplish getting a job with a six-figure paycheck, because then I will deserve to feel respected by my peers."

When those thoughts arise, consider reframing them. Try THIS instead:

"I am already _______, and I am already allowed to feel _______. If I accomplish _______, it will be wonderful, but not essential. I already like myself, just as I am."

Ex. “I am already helpful and lovable, and I am already allowed to be treated with respect. If I get the job, it will be wonderful, but not essential. I already like myself, just as I am."

One day, external praise may very well become a lovely “bonus”—the cherry on top of your life—not something that’s essential to sense of your self-worth. And the irony is, when you get there, you may find that you actually accomplish a lot more, because those old patterns of emptiness and self-sabotage won’t be holding you back, anymore.

And that is a real accomplishment.

Thought for the day: What do you deserve to feel—right now—even without accomplishing anything “extra”?

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always contact a qualified health provider before implementing or modifying any personal growth or wellness program or technique, and with any questions about well-being.

Copyright © 2019 Suzanne Gelb, Ph.D. All rights reserved