by Denise Riebman

Everyone thought a snake was in my tent when I ran out screaming. But it was only an e-mail, one that made it to my phone—even though we were in the bottom of the Grand Canyon—to inform me that I had been selected to audition for Wheel of Fortune in just three weeks. Two weeks after the audition, I got another e-mail, this one asking if I could fly to Los Angeles 10 days later to be a contestant. YES, YES, YES!

For those seven weeks, from e-mail to taping, I was bursting with anticipation—prepping, booking travel, sharing the news, and, of course, searching for the perfect outfit for national television. And then, in the 21 minutes it took to tape the show, this lifelong dream was over. I returned home to DC, feeling emotionally bankrupt, and spent the next several days lost in bleak emotions.

Why did I feel empty after this achievement? I had seen this before with clients who finally reached a lifelong goal and then felt unfulfilled when dream jobs, aspirational promotions, or work sabbaticals fell short of their expectations of how this would impact their life.

While emotional bankruptcy can be the result of reality not living up to the fantasy, more often the emptiness is because we have lost sight of what matters to us. We are chasing extrinsically focused goals rather than pausing to reflect on our intrinsic, holistic desires.

PERMA Wrestling
Martin Seligman’s Well-Being model is not written as permA (A is for Achievement/Accomplishment); all the letters are equally important. Achievement has a purpose in life, but for individuals to experience holistic flourishing, it needs to be in relation to the other elements: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, and Meaning.

It is more straightforward to focus on Accomplishments—apply to be on Wheel of Fortune, submit that job application, request a promotion, ask for a raise—as there are clear steps to follow. Wrestling with the other PERM elements is more complicated and messier. Do we take the cross-country promotion with increased travel? Accept a higher-paying executive job that removes us from direct service? Join the Peace Corps and leave our community? PERMA wrestling requires that we get into the ring of our life, and ask tough questions:

1. What are my real reasons for pursuing this goal
2. What would my life be like if I pull back the “reality curtains” of this dream goal?
3. Am I running from instead of toward something?
4. What does PERMA mean for me?

One of my clients recently landed a new job. It is nothing at all like he thought he wanted, and is stretching him in ways he never imagined—and he is really happy. In his previous position, he had been chasing, and eventually landed, a vice president title, at the cost of everything else in his life. If, at that time, he had answered those four questions about his VP fixation, he would have seen how his insecurities were pushing him into an unhealthy role within a toxic company, as a way to run away from “I’m not good enough” fears and lack of fulfillment in other areas of his life.

Fortunately, after my client left that VP role, we started working together, and he had the courage to do some honest self-reflection. It was painful, frustrating, and complicated, but he kept wrestling with his decades-long pursuit of extrinsic Achievement to avoid facing internal struggles. Now, ironically, his new job is another VP position, but this time, he feels fulfilled—extrinsically and intrinsically—because he has a deeper awareness of what he needs for Positive Emotion (a healthier work environment where people care about each other and support work/life balance), Engagement (a position that plays to his strengths in building partnerships), Relationships (quality and quantity of time for family and friends) and Meaning (a job that has a more direct impact on the world).

Wheel Wrestling
During my emotional bankruptcy post-Wheel of Fortune, I, too, wrestled with those four questions. Although my pursuit of this Accomplishment was based on my love of that game show, it also allowed me to temporarily hide from the pain of what was missing from my life. I had just ended a relationship with a man who wasn’t interested in a serious commitment, and my Well-Being Model looked like this: PErMA. While my r isn’t omitted, as I have amazing relationships with friends and family, it is lowercase, and I desire a capital R—for a true-love Relationship with a husband and family.

When part of our PERMA is missing or lowercase, we tend to turn to other aspects of our life to experience well-being. For me, that might mean leaning too heavily on a career that I love, or that anticipatory excitement of being on Wheel of Fortune. Turning our attention away from what truly matters is only a temporary distraction. Getting into the ring to do our PERMA wrestling can bring us to our knees—but, if we are willing to stay in the ring and wrestle with courage and vulnerability, we can go from emotional bankruptcy to the well-being jackpot.

To hear more about how I hit the well-being jackpot after Wheel of Fortune, stayed tuned for Part 2 of this story, after my show airs on September 22.

Denise Riebman is a career development specialist who applies a strength-based, positive psychology framework toward inspiring individuals to find career happiness. She is Director of Career Development and Alumni Services at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School, and founder of Denise holds a Certificate in Positive Psychology and additional certification from Global Career Development Facilitation, Presence-Based Coaching, and The Coaches Institute.