“I stopped listening to myself and started talking to myself.” – Ocular Surgeon Dr. James Gills.
I bring you this post in mid-November when many of us find ourselves having a harder time of it. The world is darker, and the holidays are around the corner. It’s a time when we may be more prone to melancholy, more apt to regress into old patterns, and marking the milestone of another year passed.
In this, perhaps challenging, time: Can you start with being gentle with yourself?
So often I hear my clients say, “I thought I was done with this!” or “I thought I was further along,” when they find themselves grappling with an all-too-familiar theme in their self-development. It might be some long-discarded reactive tendency or old struggles with a certain family member, or even moving through grief and loss.
What I’ve come to believe in my work as a coach, counselor, and recovering perfectionist, is that there are themes in our lives, in our beliefs about ourselves, in our family-of-origin stories, that will come up for us again and again. And again.
There are sentences we’ve repeated in our thoughts so many times, they’ve become the soundtrack to our lives. This is just the way of it – we have central struggles that make up who we are and how we are. And our work on ourselves leads back to these themes, in different ways, from different angles; back, in order to move forward, as we grow, develop, and mature through all the seasons of our lives.
All of this is completely normal and human and okay – until we make it mean something about our progress and how we haven’t come as far as we “should.” In answer to the age-old question, Are we there yet? Yes and No. We’re never there… and we’re already there… and there is no there there. (This is actually good news.)
In their book, Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe this “Are we there yet?” reflex. They refer to this mechanism in our brains as The Monitor, a sort of sentry that constantly tracks our progress in all that we endeavor, whether we’re climbing a mountain, tackling a project, or simply driving to pick up our kids. This Monitor knows our goals, watches our progress, and has some very insistent opinions about how much headway we should be making, relative to our efforts. The Monitor tends to skew negative, its voice a combination of a drill sergeant and our most judgy critic. Does this ring a bell? Are you familiar with this voice? It’s actually coming from inside the house – and we get to moderate, modulate and work with it, instead of letting it berate and belittle us.
Whether we’re focused on a big goal, the daily grind, or any kind of task — if we let our Monitor tell us we’re not making adequate progress, this ushers in a host of negative emotions: exhaustion, overwhelm, and frustration, to name a few. It can spur on burnout and cause us to underperform or to give up. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant notes that “the strongest predictor of engagement at work is a sense of daily progress.” This tendency to monitor our progress (or lack thereof) and incorporate it into our narrative about ourselves is pervasive, powerful and so worthy of our attention.
In whatever goal you’re trying to pursue, especially in this work of self-development, be gentle. Be generous with yourself. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and mark your progress with the most positive data available to you. Let the graph of your journey be an oscillating spiral or a zigzag – and still notice the positive trajectory. Allow yourself to double back and revisit old issues. In our growth as humans, we often need to learn things in many ways, from all different angles, to truly evolve and integrate that learning. What if you just let that be okay?
I know, I know – my perfectionist sisters out there are gasping at this advice, worried that if they actually gave themselves a break, they might become – dare I say it? – slackers!
So often we think that if we’re just hard enough on ourselves, mean enough, critical enough – we’ll locate the sufficiently swift kick that finally gets us in high gear. We’ll finally achieve the perfectionist fantasy. Nothing could be further from the truth: this self-critical approach in any endeavor is so painful. It’s not sustainable, and we inevitably give up. How many times have you abandoned your effort toward something you truly want, because it just felt too hard? Now ask yourself: who was making it so hard on you?
What if we meet ourselves out on the path, in whatever chapter we happen to be – with patience, kindness, self-compassion?
What if we told ourselves the truth: that perfection is a lie, a fantasy, a distraction — and progress is almost always slower than we think it should be, but it is forward motion nonetheless.
I promise you: this is not a “think positive” platitude; it’s actually very pragmatic. It’s about telling yourself the truth rather than recycling an old story. It’s about moving yourself forward rather than giving in to self-sabotage. All growing things need to be nurtured, fed, and tended to gently; not undercut.
Ironically, when you allow yourself to be “enough” right where you are, that’s what creates the will, the strength, to go further. Stop giving so much airtime to your harsh Monitor and tell yourself the loving words of encouragement you need, and deserve, to hear.