I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro recently. I have to admit it was an incredible lifetime achievement to stand atop all 5895m of the highest freestanding mountain in the world.
I trained intensively for months leading up to the adventure, I raised money for my favorite charity, Rafiki Mwema and I had the support of all of my loved ones.
As the big adventure grew closer I was excited and nervous and then one day there I was, literally miles up a mountain, actually doing this thing I’d planned for so long. It was exhilarating. It was life-altering. It was incredible.
And then I came home. And reality bites.
Don’t get me wrong, I missed my children deeply on that brutal mountain and coming home to them was wonderful but suddenly my life seemed a little bit meaningless, pointless.
Whether your achievement is climbing a mountain, running a marathon, or attaining a long sought-after promotion at work, once you have completed your much-dreamed-of mission things may not be as shiny as you hoped.
I like to call this less than exhilarating feeling the “suck back.” I don’t believe it is actually a proper psychological term, however, when I used those exact words to ask my resident psychologist, Dr. Sasha Lynn, why it occurs she knew precisely what I meant.
“The suck back happens because often we’ve envisioned something and invested in it for so long, we can sometimes hype up the achievement. And when it happens, then, that’s it, isn’t it? We’re done. Nothing more to strive toward. And that can leave us feeling a little slumped,” Dr Lynn says.
A more clinical name for the suck back as coined by positive psychology expert, Tal Ben-Shaher in his book Happier, is the ‘arrival fallacy.’
Ben-Shaher’s belief is that as you work toward a goal, you grow to expect you will achieve it. Expecting your future success triggers the brain’s reward centers, producing a soothing feeling. As you continue to prepare you become accustomed to this feeling, so when you actually achieve your goal it is less satisfying than expected.
“Being realistic in your expectations can help prevent these feelings,” says Dr Lynn. “Also keeping up with the balanced self-talk around the experience, and continuing to set small goals or having plans to keep moving forward with.”
We should not necessarily move through life madly setting and resetting goals to prevent this empty feeling, however, as this may only lead to constantly seeking external things to give us happiness. Perhaps the key is more about reflecting on how you achieved your goal in the first place.
“Focus on what went well or what worked out. Allow yourself a chance to reflect and take stock of the entire experience. Sometimes focusing on the effort and not the outcome is also just as important- and can help with the suck back feeling. Knowing what you’re capable of, and not just the final end result,” says Dr Lynn.
However, you choose or do not choose to overcome this feeling, know that it does dissipate in time. Usually, just in time for your new goal.