Every week I attempt activities that make me struggle. I teeter in precarious yoga poses that are beyond my current limitations. I toil at the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, scratching my head at obscure clues.
Struggling is uncomfortable for most of us. We shy away from actions we’re unsure of. We berate ourselves if we don’t have something mastered. We quit midstream if we deem that a task is too difficult.
It’s easy to understand why this happens. From the very earliest age we’re judged on our performance. School wants to know how well students understand algebra, not how long they grapple with the material. Kids are put in competitive situations where winning is the only goal. Parents ask their youngsters, “Did you win?” not “Are you enjoying this sport?”
As a result, we’re obsessed with being the best. We must keep up with or surpass everyone in our presence. We may not actually verbalize the sentiment, but we’re constantly comparing ourselves with others to determine how we measure up.
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If, as is so often the case, we decide that we’re less worthy, we inevitably feel bad. The negative messages in our brains kick into overdrive. “I’m no good,” we tell ourselves. “I’ve never been successful at anything I’ve tried.”
We may also start complaining, blaming others for our supposed shortcomings. “I’d understand more if my teacher didn’t talk so fast,” we rationalize. Or “I’m not good with numbers. My sister always did better in math.”
Whatever the verbiage, the internal memo is always the same: I’m a failure.
This discomfort is especially prevalent in people who are perfectionists. They spend so much time worrying about the outcome of their efforts that they are reluctant even to start. If they do begin, they’re fraught with anxiety and either unable to finish or miserable about how it came out.
Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t make any sense. Our inherent value as a human being has nothing to do with our ability to play the guitar, hit a baseball or get a high score on the SATs. Each of us is worthwhile, period.
Other facts about us, such as our position on the football team or our hours of volunteer work, are descriptive. But they don’t impact our personal merit.
It’s also a painful and energy-sapping process. Continually judging our performance, no matter how inconsequential the event, sets the stage for a cheerless existence. We never allow ourselves to feel joyful because we’re unhappy with the results.
Finally, who determines our ultimate success and failure? Must we achieve Olympic standards to make the grade? Or can the act of participating to the best of our abilities be considered adequate?
Rather than shunning challenges, we should learn to quiet those inner critics and savor the benefits of our directed efforts. Studies repeatedly show that people who define and pursue reasonable goals for themselves live longer, report greater satisfaction and make fewer trips to doctors’ offices than less directed folks.
Consistent striving means we also get better at what we do.
I’m far more flexible after 12 years of yoga. And when I started doing Sunday crossword puzzles, I could barely answer a clue. Now I usually come close to finishing. But if I don’t, that’s OK, too. The fun is in the struggle.
Tips for quieting your inner critic
Want to silence your inner critic so you find more enjoyment in your pastimes? Start with these suggestions:
Recognize negative self-talk. Notice the critical messages that arise when things get tough. Understand that they are separate from you. You don’t have to be influenced by what they say.
Relax. Critical thoughts are like muscle tension. When you relax they melt away. Take several long slow breaths, paying special attention when you exhale. Meanwhile, shake out the tension in your hands and shoulders.
Replace destructive thoughts. You can control the content of your messages. Tell yourself, “I’m going to enjoy myself. I don’t have to be the best.”
Accept your current level. You are as good as you are today. You can’t be any better. Allow yourself to revel in this stage of your development.
Keep at it. Nonjudgmental persistence is a sure-fire path to improvement. Hang in there. And enjoy the challenge.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com