This is the story of how this term, Highly Functioning, Secretly in Despair, showed up on my radar, along with a look at what it can feel like to be in this space, and a whistle stop tour of some tools and resources that can support you to get out from under this.
Before I get into the story of Highly Functioning, Secretly in Despair, a few things worth noting:
You are in very good company. I reckon you would be amazed at both the sheer numbers of highly successful, super visible, charismatic leaders across all industries who struggle in secret, and the quality of these individuals. They have successes, achievements, awards and books that help conceal their secret.
There is a way out. Perhaps I feel so certain and confident saying that because of my own personal experience shifting this space.
One third of the professional workforce is highly functioning, secretly in despair. (or dead inside).
Half of all super achievers are scaling those proverbial mountains to outrun a past they'd rather forget. All that energy and fuel... is channeled into work.
80% of Entrepreneurs would assert that they had a more challenging go at life than their peer group. 72% acknowledge they have at least one mental health disorder.
Inside our second ever call, he said this to me:
I had just finished up a few years in the Middle East (Turkey, Lebanon and a good bit of Jordan) when it was time for me to head back to the UK.
Only I wasn't feeling like London was for me anymore. Brexit was happening, I have dual citizenship for Canada and Ireland so the Irish passport was a factor, the family is in Dublin... so a quick google of the Tech Scene in Ireland and I was on my way to set up shop back 'home' in Ireland.
I was fortunate to pick up a good few clients out the gate. One client in particular, a successful business consultant, 6-digit earner, stunning offices, gorgeous family; inside our second ever call he said this to me:
"Shannon? I think you can help me. The truth is I am highly functioning, but secretly in despair"
It was a familiar conversation. One I had dozens of times with colleagues, peers and clients since at least 2015. It is one I've had about 1000x since.
In this particular exchange, the words landed differently because I recognised myself in them. I was highly functioning, secretly-in-despair.
This place of Highly Functioning, Secretly in Despair, can feel manageable one day and suffocating the next.
The words I would use to describe this space, would include:
There is no calm, balance, relaxation or zen. We're either flat out at octane levels spinning plates (and heads) as we zip past, or ... when we need to take the edge off we are doing it with; alcohol, sex, or binge watching netflix into the wee hours.
We're exceptionally good at avoiding our past, our health as well as the spaces, places and faces that give us pause... that if we do engage, trigger us, before overwhelming us and initiating some form of spiral... NO! We avoid all that as well as the nitty gritty of things, the deadlines imposed by bureaucrats, and just about everything else that isn't tied to a client, deliverable or pitch.
We chose an addiction that we don't have to hide from society, but is one we get to hide in. Work!
Work is one of the most socially acceptable addictions to have, right up there with fitness. It is the perfect addiction to distract us from everything but work, or use to fool ourselves into thinking we are happy. "We're doing what we love, loving what we do blah blah blah."
We're slowly going from life of the party, to the Hermit nobody can locate.
We call it solitude. It's not. It's self-isolation and it's a hallmark trait of unresolved stuff from your past. The body is Not-Safe-Can't-Trust and the physical reaction to socialising swallows us whole at times. That's why we ghost, cancel last minute, or just dodge contact so we don't get invited anywhere.
We half joke we are not control freaks. We are.
We indulge others while they share opinions and ideas that we really don't care about... and we can be seen to go through the motions of half baked conversations with our teams, leadership and suppliers, but we're barely present, and we're going to do it our way anyway.
We are known (famous) for Leading, while leaving others behind. We micro manage... have unfortunate outbursts or shutdowns when we don't get our own way .... largely due to a pre-programmed biology that is operating on the Do Not Trust setting inside a the Survival Mode Operating System.
Keeping it, Making it, Pricing our wares with it, and everything in between lives inside this rollercoaster of a relationship with money.
What's worse? That rollercoaster is bolted down right on the edge of a cliff called 'Financial Ruin' taunting us every so often. We ride the rollercoaster seeking the big pay outs, as we brace ourselves for the drops. The perfect cocktail of fear to sip when locked into survival mode.
Because when we continue to ignore the symptoms, over time, the symptoms take root and return back to us, disease, mental collapse, the need for sleeping pills when whiskey doesn't work, crushing chest pain, and if we're lucky to wake up at that point and get some help, then we can avoid the train wreck that is the next stop.
An Incomplete Truth Is As Damaging As The Lie
I navigated a lifetime using the Mind-Business lens only. Honestly, there was nothing else as valuable or worthy of my time and effort. 20 years later, with very little results to show for my financial investment, time, energy and study, I started to wonder if I was too broken to be fixed.
For whatever reason, it appeared to be working for them, but not me.
A chance webinar comparing two brain scans of 5 year olds, one from a healthy home, one from a home with neglect, would abruptly shift my entire trajectory on life, business and what I wanted to do with my life.
I would learn in the days and weeks that followed, that it is not Mind-Business.
It is Brain-Body-Mind-Business
Mind-Business only is like playing the game of life with half a deck of cards and not even know it.
When I understood neglect can leave a mark on the brain and body the way a stroke leaves a lesion on the brain, something inside started to click.
When I understood that the body's off and on switches don't always turn off on their own, I got a better insight into how a Mind-Business only lens can be futile.
When we have enough past experiences to trigger fight or flight response in us, sometimes, that physiology switch stays on and remains on 3, 5, 20 years later. It just won't turn off without deliberate intervention. When this happens, the brain-body dysregulates.
Dysregulation has side effects.
Two side effects of an always on Survival Mode switch?
Anxiety and Fear.
Not to mention; Impaired cognition, distorted reality, tumultuous relationship with money, the need to disconnect from spaces, places, faces, and a lifestyle that leaves you Highly Functioning, Secretly in Despair!
Wait!? Who Turned on The Lights?
I am about 3 years into the Post Traumatic Growth phase of recovery. My life changed significantly in the first 5 weeks that gave me the courage to navigate those first, somewhat bumpy 12 months. Here's what I did:
Prioritised Regulating Brain-Body first
Doing this first provides the physical meat packed skeleton with the feelings of safe and stable. I tried Alternate Nostril Breathing at home, on my won for 15-minutes morning and evening. I did this breathing with Emiliano Toso playing in the background. His music is 432 Hz and played in hospitals to support cellular recovery. By week 5, my planet spun on its axis. Or at least, that's the size of change I had as I spontaneously woke up one morning and for the first time in my life, I felt safe inside my body.
Open Sea Swimming has endless benefits. If you've been thinking about starting, this is your sign to do it.
Art Therapy for the creatives among us. This is a really effective vehicle for promoting brain-body regulation.
Immersive Meditation using all 5 senses
My point is, I didn't just use one thing, I experimented with a few that both, resonated with me and felt interesting.
If you want to be facilitated by a qualified practitioner with clinical practices as opposed to the DIY versions above, than I would suggest looking into any one of the following:
You may find it helpful to know that I mention 38 resources in my book, C-PTSD at Work: Highly Functioning, Secretly in Despair.I give the PDF version away for free here >
Talk therapy with a qualified Trauma-Informed practitioner, comes second.
Often, your Brain-Body Practitioner likely offers several if not many other tools, including talk therapy. Ask them.
Thanks for making it this far.