By: Maria Pascucci, Founder of Campus Calm

I recently received an email from an overwhelmed, high-achieving woman who was stressed out due to the pressures of college life. She was overextended and needed help prioritizing between her classwork, leadership roles, extracurricular activities and work commitments. Completely relatable right!

I responded back to the student and first commended her for her courage to reach out and ask for help.

When we’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, we high-achieving women have the tendency to try to stuff our emotions deep down and pretend everything’s perfect. We wonder what that says about us if we’re not perfect.

Silence breeds shame. It’s so powerful to reach out to someone we trust, and know that we’re not alone. When our emotions are heightened, we can feel powerless to stop the broken record of negative thoughts running circles in our heads. Taking a few deep breaths, putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard, can help us to release our intense emotions. Giving voice to our emotions helps to diffuse the shame.

Here are 5 tips to help calm overwhelm in high-achieving women:

1. Question unrealistic expectations. We high-achieving women leaders tend to overextend ourselves in college and then in the working world. If you ask us why we do it, our polished Miss America responses tend to be “Because I’m interested in so many different things, and I want to change the world in every way that I can!” (Smile big).

That’s the acceptable half-truth we feel confident sharing; the unspoken other half-truth we hide from the world (and sometime we even hide it from ourselves) is we overextend ourselves because we’re self-doubtful. We overextend because we’re afraid that we’re not good enough as we stand to make our dreams come true. We say to ourselves, sometimes unconsciously, “If I just take one more class, join one more extracurricular, say yes to one more project, then (fingers crossed) I’ll be good enough to find a good job and be happy and successful.”

In our quest for perfection, we can sacrifice sleep, confidence, health and happiness; burnout will not contribute to our potential for leadership, not to mention life satisfaction.

We have four years in college to join clubs and then the rest of our lives to contribute and serve as professional women. Let’s talk openly about that and help each other understand that we don’t have to do it all NOW. It is a practice in personal leadership development to recognize that we high achieving women are human, and begin to take steps to prioritize, knowing that we will serve better when we’re not overextended.

2. Focus Inward. Let’s take an honest look at our schedules. When I’m feeling overwhelmed and overextended, I look at my to-do list and for every action item I ask myself, “Is this the best use of my time? Do I really like doing this, or is my decision to do this task being driven by fear?”

How to tell? Are you using the word “should” a lot…that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re being driven by fear. As my friend Christine says, we women need to stop “shoulding” all over ourselves! If you want to graduate with honors, you probably won’t have time to fit in a ton of extracurricular activities and internships too, especially all at once.

In that case, consider choosing one or two extracurricular activities that you feel most passionate about and take leadership roles within those organizations. Intern during the summer or winter break. If you have to work to help pay the bills, see if you can take a lighter course load for a semester or two. If you focus inward and realize that you’d like to free up more time for leadership positions on campus, then it’s time to take steps to reach out for guidance as you shape your schedule. Which brings me to my next point…

3. Talk to a Trusted Professor, Mentor or Academic Advisor. It’s a mark of personal leadership development to let our mentors help us by opening ourselves up to receive their wisdom. If you already focused inward to prioritize and keep unrealistic expectations in check, you’re ready to take your targeted and specific questions to your advisors on campus. Your professors and advisors can help you pinpoint specific solutions and help you address any unresolved unrealistic expectations you’re placing on yourself to “do it all” in one semester. Many years out of college, I still go to my mentors when I’m struggling and I can tell you firsthand how empowering the experience of asking for help is!

4. Practice Saying a Graceful “No.” Now that you trimmed your schedule on paper, it’s time to take steps to trim it in real time and that takes courage! All I can say about courage is you gain it by exercising it one opportunity at a time.

So let’s say that you took an honest look at your schedule and there is one extracurricular activity and one internship that you need to cut. Here’s an example of how to do it gracefully:

Some years back, one of my interns at Campus Calm emailed me to let me know that she couldn’t continue on as an intern for the Spring semester.

She wrote to tell me that school had just started and that her schedule was tighter than she had anticipated. She explained that while she loved interning at Campus Calm, she decided to resign, pointing out that she wouldn’t be able to dedicate as much time to the internship as she would like, and that it was best for both of us if she stepped down. My intern didn’t want to leave me hanging though, and made sure I knew that she would be willing to work on any last minute projects that I was planning to assign her. Lastly, she expressed her sincere thanks for the internship experience, taking the time to let me know all that she had learned in her time working with me.

Was I sad to see my intern go? Yes, but the way in which she handled herself made me so proud! We can say No to others in a way that’s respectful and empowering for all persons involved. Don’t be afraid! As I told my intern, the younger you can learn to say No with confidence, the better leader you’ll be because as you grow in your professional career, the pressure to overextend will intensify and you’ll need to have your prioritizing muscles chiseled & conditioned to help you!

Trust yourself and finally …

5. Flex Your Faith. My girlfriend recently reminded me that faith is maintaining the belief that things will work out before the visible evidence presents itself. The kind of faith I’m talking about is completely different from just wishy-washy hoping things will all work out the way we want them to without taking any positive action steps to realize our goals.

The kind of faith I’m talking about comes into play when we’re stepping up every day to be the leaders of our own lives, investing in our growth, taking smart risks and making self-loving decisions.

At some point, we high-achieving women owe it to ourselves to step back and trust that it will be enough, that we are enough. That when we are living in accordance with our natural gifts that we will attract the people, experiences and the jobs that are the best fit for us, and where we will truly shine as leaders.

As Kris Kringle said to Dorey Walker in Miracle on 34th Street, “If… you can’t believe, if you can’t accept anything on faith, then you’re doomed for a life dominated by doubt.” I choose faith, how about you?

“Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”
-Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

What we mentors for high-achieving women could do a better job of role modeling:

  • Self-trust.
  • Saying no without guilt and affirming for each other that the world doesn’t end when we say no.
  • That resilience is our greatest leadership advantage and it all starts with self-care built from a foundation of self-love.

With love,