A common concern brought to light in therapy is the tendency for clients to be too hard on themselves, to be too rigid with their expectations, or to fall prey to all or nothing thinking. These thoughts might sound like “It’s not good enough”, “This is not how I pictured it”, “If I don’t get an A, then I might as well fail”, or “That person is so good at it, I must be awful”. As a therapist, I often find myself trying to help my clients be kind to themselves rather than bullying themselves into performance. We try to find the line between being self-motivated and self-critical.
These common thinking patterns may grow out of a desire to be high achieving. However, they are actually more likely to foster a sense of shame, heighten anxiety, and hinder performance. Even if productivity is increased and “success” is achieved, one still has to ask whether the perceived success is worth negatively impacting one’s mental health and overall life satisfaction.
In the best of times, this thinking can increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. This type of thinking can only make coping with the unchangeable stresses of a pandemic, cultural shifts, a tense political climate, and working from home (or potential job loss) more difficult.
So, rather than spinning our wheels and fixating on what we cannot change, below are a few suggestions to help you put energy towards wellness.
Reassess What Our Best Looks Like
We all have a finite amount of time and energy to work with. These reserves will ebb and flow over time, so our perception of what our “best” looks like can ebb and flow as well. During a time of high stress when many sources of joy and support are withheld, our best is going to look different. When we are physically sick we make accommodations. When a loved one is having a bad day we treat them with grace and understanding. When we are living through a quarantine why not turn that same compassion inwards?
Given the toll that added stressors take, we may need to prioritize our goals. Of course we are not getting rid of all expectations. We need goals. We are just aiming to be more forgiving. This is a difficult task for those who struggle with rigid thinking and treat all tasks and obligations with equal importance. For our students, this may mean that parents and teachers are more understanding when students are not able to follow directions promptly, are not so critical when students are late to class or with an assignment, or prioritize student social interactions over instructional goals. For us adults, this may mean being more gentle with ourselves when the house is messy or when we lose our patience with our kids. Again, we are not making space for failure; we are making space for wellness.
Look to the Positive
While we restructure our priorities, we may feel anxious about the consequences of reframing our expectations. Many parents are concerned that their child’s academic performance during distanced learning has been lower, and they are worried about how it will impact them moving forward. It can be helpful to remember that there will be time to close any learning gaps created during this time. Just because they have not learned something fully does not mean that they won’t in the future. It can also be beneficial to focus on what your children are learning instead. Due to virtual learning and reduced oversight from teachers, children are learning to independently switch from class to class, to track their own work, and to manage their own time. Sure, many children are not doing so perfectly, but this is an opportunity to develop a skill set that many people do not develop until college. Yes, there will be academic gaps that need to be filled, but our children have also learned so much that is valuable.
We don’t often think of self-care as necessary or as valuable as other things because there is no tangible outward marker of proper care for the self. But, mental health is as important as physical health, homework, and career. We know that we cannot pour from an empty cup, but often we live and work without realizing that our cups are almost dry. So, I put you to the task of nurturing yourself. I often advise my clients to focus on three categories: care for body, care for mind, and care for spirit or joy. I suggest spending some time to make a list of activities that might fall into each of these categories. For the body, you may need exercise or a nice bath. For the mind, you may need to read or explore an old passion project. For your spirit, engage in a hobby or video chat with a loved one. Then try to fit in one activity from each category once a week.
Redefining success may feel like cheating. You may feel like letting one or two things slide will lead to an avalanche that is impossible to recover from. It isn’t and it won’t. We cannot necessarily look to past experiences to know how to best manage new circumstances. Habits and thought patterns that once served us may no longer be giving us the optimal or most healthy outcomes.
If you find yourself struggling to keep up or feel overwhelmed by the added duties thrust upon you in the middle of a pandemic, then I encourage you to try to be flexible and care for yourself in a manner that serves you better. If you need more guidance, then please reach out.
Amber Young, LGPC, NCC
Amber is a licensed graduate therapist and associate at Your Best Self. She works predominantly with adolescents and adults struggling with issues related to anxiety and depression.