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High performers don’t know how to grieve–but it might be just what they need

July 12, 2022, 10:15 AM UTC
High-performing individuals don’t surrender easily. By battling through the grieving process, they risk emotional burnout and physical collapse.
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In America, we do not know how to grieve. We face profound loss, shrug it off, then force ourselves out of bed, clinging to the scaffolding of our work lives. This can-do attitude jeopardizes our health and well-being. If we’re high performers, we may even choose to bulldoze through the most painful periods of our lives, until we collapse in piles of our own rubble.

Not being able to grieve is an epic problem, especially when our country is filled with millions of grieving people. During this pandemic, we’ve lost so much: loved ones, stability, safety, structure, and trust in systems. What I’ve come to call the Great Grief precipitated and continues to fuel the Great Resignation.

As a psychologist who works with high-performing people, I help entrepreneurs reset priorities amid loss. One client, an executive at a health care company, had a heart attack after experiencing so many losses. He was 53. Fortunately, he will be okay. I’m helping him pick his way along a difficult path, instead of jumping back on his bulldozer. Through him and others, I see how grief comes out sideways. Pent-up energy causes impulsive decisions, health challenges, weight gain, and burnout.

As a group, the high performers don’t surrender easily. When you battle through the grieving process, you risk emotional burnout and physical collapse. For the high-achieving individual, one of the challenges of grief is that there’s nothing left to fight. There are no medical treatments or special diets to try. There are no more specialist appointments or books to read. The fight is over, and loss has mandated surrender.

Those who devote so much time to work question the purpose behind all their efforts. When Australian palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware counseled the dying in their last days, she recorded their dying epiphanies. In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, she revealed one key regret was having worked too hard. Ware found that her patients had missed their children’s youth and companionship; and men especially “deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

Sadly, I am also an expert in grief. After losing my dad to cancer and my brother to suicide within a six-month period, I’ve experienced deep sorrow. There are moments when grief has left me so tender, like my soul’s skin is badly sunburned. This is not a good way to show up in the professional world. And because of this, I understand why so many people quit their jobs during the Great Resignation.

When grief changes so many parts of your life, of course, you’ll work differently. You may need some time away, just as you may also find tremendous meaning and value in diving into your work. You may also decide to quit and strike out as an entrepreneur. A recent study by Intuit QuickBooks found that in 2022, 17 million Americans will launch a new business; and one-third of these will hire employees.

Here are five things I’ve found to be most helpful for high-performing individuals as they grapple with grief.

Don’t go over, go deep

Ask yourself hard questions. How has loss shaped your professional self? Has it shifted your practices or priorities? Is your ego fragile or defended or perhaps just gone? And what do you want to do about it? If you feel pulled away from your typical work, notice what you are being pulled toward. Something more creative? Something more human? Something less complicated? Something more entrepreneurial? Something more joyful?

Create a grief outlet

Step out of your day-to-day because normal life no longer exists. Go hiking, or live on the beach, or create a different existence for a while. This space you create for yourself is an honoring and acknowledgment that nothing is the same as it used to be.

Create meaning

High achievers who grieve need to figure out how to express their new insights, deeper focus, or greater tenderness without losing the parts that seem core to their professional self. Part of creating a new business, or becoming an entrepreneur, is creating more meaning for ourselves.

Find a grieving community

Find solace and support in a church or bereavement group or the comradery of others who have left their jobs and lost their colleagues and purpose. If you’re an employer, create these spaces for yourself and your employees.

Build a new legacy

Many high performers are entrepreneurial. Instead of spending time in structured work, recreate your work life in a way that honors the person you’ve become through grief. Alter your structure and scaffolding; create your own systems and safety.

I believe we need to be fully present with the pain of loss while experiencing the full joy of living. Instead of seeing grief as something to be avoided or rushed through, grief gives us permission to carve out space for more joy and meaning. And we don’t need to do it with a bulldozer.

Sherry Walling, MAT, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, speaker, yoga teacher and entrepreneur. Her podcast, ZenFounder, has been called a “must listen” by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines. She is an advisor to Intuit’s Early Start campaign for entrepreneurs. Her books include How to Run Your Business Without Letting it Run You, and the upcoming title Touching Two Worlds: a guide for finding hope in the landscape of loss.

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