Lately I have been inundated with what I am sure are well-meaning posts. I find myself encouraged, exhorted, and commanded to “Believe Deep Down In Your Heart That You Are Destined To Do Great Things” and “Dream It Believe It Achieve It!” I don’t know what “Manifest Your Reality With Positive Thought Projection!” means. I am not sure I want to “Leap Forward With No Regrets,” and it isn’t clear how I would follow Oprah Winfrey’s statement that “The Biggest Adventure You Can Ever Take Is To Live The Life Of Your Dreams!”(These are all actual titles of articles or memes I’ve seen posted online.)
Frankly, I find these slogans overwhelming. I understand the idea of working hard to accomplish what you want. But as a recovering perfectionist, I also know what a trap this is, and how it leads to burnout, illness, anxiety, and depression. Lately I have wondered: What if I don’t want to live the biggest life possible? What if I want to live the good-enough life, without so much hustle and bustle but with the satisfaction of having done a good job? How do I do that?
We all seem to think we should be doing more than we are, working harder and striving to be better than ever. Whatever we manage to accomplish each day is viewed (by ourselves, mainly) as insufficient. We rarely go to bed patting ourselves on the back. We seem to have formed an irrefutable circular logic that decrees, “Whatever I have done today is not enough, and it wasn’t the right stuff anyway; I should have done that other stuff!” The things we do don’t count, simply because they are the things we did. The other things will always be the things we should have done. So, it is never enough and we drag along in perpetual shame and discouragement, because it really sucks to never “Live Up To Your Full Potential!” We never really gain any sense of satisfaction. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the pressure—and its results.
What if everything we’ve done, and who we are right now, is good enough? What if Stuart Smalley got it right? You may recall Al Franken’s self-help icon of the 1990s from the TV show Saturday Night Live. Stuart was a send-up of the self-help movement, but he spoke without apology to the importance of easing up on ourselves. What if we are fundamentally OK as we are, at this weight, this age, with these wrinkles and imperfect relationships, with dirty socks and unpaid bills lying around, never having managed to send Aunt Margaret that thank-you note?
The longer I live, the more likely this seems. We are OK. We don’t have to live the ultimate life in order to bring something worthwhile into the world. We can live a life with the elements that bring meaning to us. Meaning is ultimately more important than what we call happiness, and can come only from self-knowledge and taking time to digest our lives. Knowing this can help us grow gently into our authentic selves (if that is what we want to do!).
Buddhism describes all sentient beings as having inherent “Buddha nature.” We are fundamentally open, intelligent, and warm. When we recognize our own basic goodness, we develop some trust in our abilities, our capacity to be useful in the world and live in a genuine and loving manner. We find that sweet spot of “not too tight, not too loose” when making effort in our lives. We succeed without creating more stress and trouble along the way. In middle age, I have come to understand and value this lesson deeply.
A friend who trains world-class athletes told me that he times them doing one lap striving hard, really pushing to exceed their personal best. Then he gives them a lazy lap, telling them to just go at a good clip but with no huge effort. Their lazy time invariably beats their striving time. Fascinating.
My voice teacher played this trick on me as well, when I got uptight trying to learn a song. I worried so much about my form, breathing, pitch, and tone that I could barely hit the notes. She had me slouch in a chair, pretend I was smoking a cigarette, and basically not giving a hoot, while I sang. It worked. Loud and clear. Now when my voice gets tight, I try singing poorly on purpose, or just not caring about this one song. Ironically, the lower the expectation, the easier it is to just belt it out.
The latest permutation on this theme for me is: effort at the right place and time, in the right direction. When I had been out of yoga class for six months (back injury) and was ready to return, I learned it takes a kind of gently firm pressure—some effort—to get myself to class. But once there, I had to let go of effort in the yoga itself so I wouldn’t injure myself again. I learned that yoga is so much easier when I don’t push it. I am kind of astonished at this; although I believed it to be so, I never let myself live it before now.
Effort does not equal success; in fact, it restricts it.
You may notice in your own life that trying to beat yourself into striving doesn’t work. You may also notice—if you try it—that giving yourself a break and taking an easy go-round at whatever you are doing reaps lovely rewards. You may be afraid that if you relax a bit you will become lazy. The fear of being lazy can freeze us into inaction, or into distraction (same thing, really). Have you noticed that? We can become so busy with housework, errands, work-work, and screen time that we never quite get in touch with ourselves and what we need and want in order to thrive. Fear of being lazy can keep us stuck, so we never relax and just do what we are longing to do.
Maybe I think I should want to do X-Y-Z—many people seem to want it, it seems like a good idea—but maybe that isn’t really what I want. How do we know what we want? We have to start where we are with what we have. Like going through our closets. What fits, what do we actually love, what do we use, what shall we let go of now? A little down time for self-examination is called for, followed by small periods of testing to see what is true.
I try to grab a few minutes between therapy sessions with people, or when I come home from work, or before bed, and just sit. It helps me recognize what is important without mindlessly heading into a time-wasting habit. When I quietly allow myself to connect with my own longing, I gently find ways to follow it. I have found great joy lately in taking little pieces of time here and there just to do what I want. I sometimes set a timer, which helps me focus and contain any anxiety I might have. I want to do art—15 minutes for a sketch or a bit of paint. I want a cleaner workspace—10 minutes to go through a layer of papers. Missing a story or intellectual stimulation? One chapter of a book. I don’t need to commit to the whole thing. Every other therapist seems to see X number of people, but I want to see only Y. Wow, letting myself run my practice the way I choose? Mind-boggling. And really, really rewarding. This relaxed, good-enough thing is a novel approach for one who was raised by workaholic perfectionists, believe me.
Giving myself time to know what is important and time to pursue it in a relaxed, open manner is making a huge difference in my life. When I give myself permission to be a good-enough singer or a lousy artist, I am free to follow these pursuits and any others I wish. When I believed I had to strive and be the ultimate version of anything I was interested in, I never even took the risk of trying. Overwhelm and perfectionism are creativity killers, and ultimately suck the life out of living.
If we must have a slogan to live by, we could try Stuart Smalley’s playful words: “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”
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