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How to manage ambition: Question it, create boundaries and drop the pressure

Excess orientation around achievement can have a down side

Ambition is neither good nor bad in itself, it’s what we do with it that can impact our mental health. Ambition can provide direction, it can be motivating and it’s linked to increased self-esteem and self-belief through achievement, says Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy-accredited counselling psychologist Jade Lawless. If we become too achievement-oriented, however, this can bring pressure and feelings of perceived failure and negative self-worth.

Nature or nurture?

Are we born ambitious, or do we develop it? It’s a bit of both. “There is an argument that there is an inherited component, but it is also nurture,” says Lawless, who is the academic director of PCI College. “Early influences really do play a role in how ambitious we are.”

“If we have ambitious parents, we might model that. Our parents might have very high expectations that require us to be ambitious,” she says.

Ambition can be an early mechanism to secure our love and belonging or self-esteem needs. “If I am told, ‘do this, and you will get love’, or ‘achieve this, then you are a good girl or boy’, our values and self-image are very much linked to those messages,” says Lawless. “We learn if I achieve, I get love. If I achieve, I feel good about myself. Then our ambition and its achievement becomes a core value.”


Question it

If you feel pressured or anxious about the direction you think you should be going in life, take stock. “Our values are very much inherited from our early experiences but, as we develop our own identity, we can question what exactly is important to us,” says Lawless.

Perhaps I would prefer to prioritise other things, like relationships with family and friends, giving, personal growth or wisdom? “Think about your own values, and allow those to guide your ambition levels in a healthy way.”

Show me the money

The trophy job title, salary, house, car – if the purpose of your ambition is external reward only, you are unlikely to achieve long-term satisfaction, says Lawless.

“That’s when ambition becomes unhealthy, because you are not living authentically. You are chasing something that you think might be satisfying, but how many times have we all said, ‘if I just get to… then I’ll be happy’? But the shine wears off those things very quickly,” she says.

“Where ambition is linked to internal rewards, like personal growth or seeking knowledge, there is much more personal fulfillment and satisfaction,” she says.

Create boundaries

Your time is your most precious asset but are you using it well? “When we begin to compromise our relationships and our time for a goal or ambition, we can lose joy and connection with ourselves,” says Lawless. Create boundaries around your relationships and your time and don’t let them be compromised by things that are less important to you.

Drop the pressure

If your partner or child is less ambitious than you would like, take a step back, says Lawless. “It doesn’t always have to be about striving for the next five-year plan. Just keep it in the day sometimes. Lower the bar, slow down.”

“Ask yourself, is this sacrifice worth the goal for me, is this pressure that I am putting on family members worth our relationship?” Scaling heights feels natural to you but, on another personality, it might take a toll. Remember, your child is not you.

Society heaps pressure on us to strive and acquire the badges of reward. If you feel conflicted about your path, talk to a professional, says Lawless. “Talking to a therapist about the challenge ambition, or lack of it, brings to your life can help.”

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance