May 21, 2024

Doing well but not feeling well? Avoiding the toxic success trap: stop striving and start thriving

Motherhood, Wellbeing


Nearly 20 years ago, I received a phone call that changed my life.

At the time, I was sitting on the most idyllic beach in the Maldives.

The kind of beach that is the epitome of paradise.

Pure white sand. 

Clear crystal waters.

But the sense of calm and joy that should have been with me on that holiday wasn’t there.

I’d booked the holiday to run away from the life that I’d built.

I’d been climbing the corporate ladder.

On the outside I was doing really well.

  • A six-figure salary,
  • An impressive bonus scheme
  • The stock shares
  • The company car
  • The first-class business trips 
  • The farmhouse in the countryside

But inside, I was feeling far from well.

I’d built a great standard of living but had a poor quality of life.

I was constantly stressed.

I was irritable with my loved ones.

I’d become someone I didn’t know or like anymore.

I was pushing myself to hit targets, exceed expectations, and continuously improve. This had led to impressive accomplishments, but it came at the expense of my well-being. 

The pressure to perform had left me feeling drained, stressed, and unfulfilled.

So this holiday in the Maldives was a way for me to escape it all and figure out a plan.

How did I stop being a corporate prisoner? 

How could I create a life where I not only did well but felt well too?

A week into that two-week holiday, something happened that changed *everything*.

I was sitting on the deck of our beautiful villa, taking in the view of paradise, when my phone rang.

It was my brother and his words were like a cold blade straight through my heart.

“Nic….. mum has died…….!.”

My head couldn’t comprehend what he was saying.

She’d been fine the week before I’d left for holiday,  So this was totally unexpected.

I couldn’t make sense of it.  How could she be dead?

How could I be halfway around the world when this was happening?

It was 24 hours before I could get a flight home.

And in those 24 hours sitting in paradise, coming to terms with the worst possible news I could ever have received, everything changed.

The world kept spinning on its axis, but it would never spin at quite the same angle again.

I realised at that moment how I’d got so off course in my life.

I couldn’t escape the fact that I’d built toxic success.

In his book Toxic Success: How to Stop Striving and Start Thriving” clinical neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall describes “toxic success” as the harmful effects of an overemphasis on achieving conventional success—wealth, power, and prestige—at the expense of health, relationships, and overall wellbeing.

I’d got hooked on the culture of equating success with material gain and professional achievement. And I’d become stuck in a never-ending cycle of striving without true satisfaction.

It had been eating away at me from the inside and I hadn’t known what to do about it.

But my mum’s death meant I was no longer willing to tolerate being stuck on that treadmill.

From that moment on, my definition of success shifted.

I wanted what Paul Pearsall calls “inner success”: success built on living in alignment with what matters most—well-being and fulfilling relationships. 

I was no longer willing to tolerate external success at the expense of my internal success.

I was no longer willing to tolerate toxic success.

Before I caught that flight home, I decided to make some big changes. And I did—they were pretty revolutionary but my life needed it.

Want to discover if you are living with toxic success?  I’ve devised this quick quiz for you.

Are You Living With Toxic Success?

Instructions: Answer each question honestly with Yes or No.

  1. Work Habits
    • Do you frequently work late into the night or on weekends, even when it’s not required?
    • Do you feel guilty or anxious when you’re not working or being productive?
    • Have you missed important personal events (e.g., family gatherings, birthdays) because of work?
    • Do you often think about work even during leisure activities or while spending time with loved ones?
  2. Personal Relationships
    • Have your friends or family members expressed concern about how much time you spend working?
    • Do you feel that your work is more important than your personal relationships?
    • Do you find it difficult to relax or enjoy time with friends and family because you’re preoccupied with work?
    • Have you noticed a decline in the quality of your relationships due to your work commitments?
  3. Health and Well-being
    • Do you often feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed by your workload?
    • Have you experienced physical health problems (e.g., headaches, insomnia, digestive issues) that you suspect are related to stress or overwork?
    • Do you neglect self-care activities (e.g., exercise, healthy eating, hobbies) because of work?
    • Do you rarely take vacations or feel unable to fully disconnect from work during time off?
  4. Emotional and Mental State
    • Do you derive most of your self-worth or identity from your professional achievements?
    • Do you find it hard to feel satisfied or happy with your accomplishments, always feeling like you need to do more?
    • Are you constantly striving for more success, recognition, or financial gain, even if it means sacrificing other aspects of your life?
    • Do you feel that no matter how much you achieve, it’s never enough?


  • 0-4 Yes Answers: You are likely maintaining a healthy balance between work and personal life. Keep up the good work!
  • 5-8 Yes Answers: You might be experiencing some signs of toxic success. Consider re-evaluating your priorities and making time for self-care and relationships.
  • 9-12 Yes Answers: You are likely dealing with toxic success. It’s important to take steps to reduce your workload, manage stress, and reconnect with loved ones.
  • 13-16 Yes Answers: You are highly likely to be living with toxic success. Seek support from a mental health professional or a coach to help you address these issues and achieve a healthier balance.

My journey to step away from toxic success hasn’t been easy, and it’s not a ‘once-and-done’ thing either.  It’s a journey I’ve been on ever since.

How can I feel good on the inside as I do well on the outside? 

How can I thrive and not just strive?  

How can I do well and be well?

It’s something I keep coming back to when the gravitational pull of the outside world hooks me into overworking and neglecting the things that matter most.

I’m still ambitious in my career, but I will no longer tolerate it coming at such a huge personal cost.

And it’s the work I love to support my clients with. 

Too many women I speak to feel like they’ve either got to ‘lean in’ to their career ambitions to succeed.  Or they have to lean out, realising the personal cost it’s having on them and their loved ones.  But I’m passionate about helping them find a different way.  To find a way to stay grounded in what matters most as they navigate their career ambitions.

But it doesn’t happen by chance.

It requires intentional living to navigate a world fueled by toxic success.

Here’s to finding that inner success because if my mum’s death taught me anything, it’s that the cost of toxic success is too painful to allow it to guide us.

Nicky x

P.S.  Feel that you’re stuck in a toxic success trap?  Get in touch for a free discovery call to learn how coaching can help release you from the toxic trap.

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