You’ve “got this.”
We are expected to be “on” all the time. On email, on text, on WhatsApp, on the phone. At work, we are “on it.” We feel guilty when we’re not. We feel good when we have delivered a great project and receive applause. We feel driven to keep pushing forward professionally. We enjoy being known for doing a great job. Our standard response to demands is, “I’ve got this. It’s all good.”
But is it?
Are we happy?
We come home late and drink wine to de-stress. We can’t sleep as our mind is buzzing with the “to-do” list. We wake at five o’clock in the morning anxious about work. We cram our weekend with socialising and have a meltdown when we are alone on a Sunday night.
We compare ourselves unfavourably to our peers. We feel lonely, insecure, and depressed. The polar opposite of how we come across at work. On Monday when the alarm clock rings, we feel relieved that the work routine is starting again so that we can distract ourselves. We down a coffee and get back on the treadmill.
Does this sound like you or anyone you know? I have certainly worked with many clients like this. It’s become the new “normal.”
Who are we trying to please?
Dr. Jeffrey Young, who created, Schema therapy identified the “unrelenting standards” schema. A schema is an unhelpful way that we behave in the present due to a certain set of circumstances in our childhood.
Schema also goes by the name of “life trap.” As the term suggests, with an unrelenting standards schema, we strive to meet our exceptionally high standards for work or for other areas of our life like appearance, study or income, among others.
We set the bar incredibly high and are never quite satisfied. Even when we receive acclaim and recognition, we cannot relax. These unrelenting standards show up in how we relate to ourselves. We are never satisfied with our appearance, our personality, or our academic attainments. We focus on our flaws and shortcomings. We are caring and generous when it comes to others, but we hold ourselves to higher and harsher standards.
Perhaps we developed these unrelenting standards from our parents. Maybe with all the best intention, they pushed us to study harder, to get even better marks, to be the best. We got the unspoken message that we were never quite good enough. Or that our worth was tied to our achievements. We did not feel “enough” just for being ourselves, regardless of our successes or failures.
We may have developed these unrelenting standards for other reasons. Perhaps having a dazzling career gives us the attention and praise we never received as children. Perhaps financial security replaces the emotional security we never had from our parents. Or maybe a managerial position covers up the feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, and shame that we felt when we were young and gives us a sense of status.
Either way, we are constantly trying to please a critical and demanding part of ourselves. In Schema therapy this is called the “demanding and critical parent.” In Gestalt therapy, we call it “top dog.”
You won’t get a prize for working yourself into the ground and ending up alone
The problem with striving to meet these demands is that they are never sated. We may get professional accolade, but we also get the booby prize which is stress, anxiety, and depression. We end up missing the boat in other areas of life, for example postponing having children until our fertility is on the way out.
Stress also impacts our relationships. Embodied Gestalt couples’ and sex therapist Dr. Stella Resnick describes how stress triggers those of us with insecure attachment styles. These are the way we relate to others based on how securely attached we felt to our main caregivers when we were children.
The insecure attachment styles are anxious (clingy and needy), ambivalent (blowing hot and cold), avoidant (distant), and disorganised (a mixture of all three preceding attachment styles). When we are stressed we relate more anxiously, more ambivalently, more avoidantly, or in a more disorganised way. If our partner is also stressed and has an insecure attachment style then is the recipe for a perfect storm.
If you seek validation through work, you will seek eternally, and that is—let’s face it—tiring.
Life is hard work when our self-worth depends on external factors. Sure, we all like to do a good job and get praise and recognition. It makes us feel good. Nothing wrong with that. Setting goals and achieving them can be satisfying.
But when we depend on achieving in order to feel good then life becomes hard work. It’s difficult to relax and ignore the niggling voice about our “to-do” lists. Even when we achieve what we wanted, the satisfaction is short-lived, and we dwell on the next big task.
We tend to focus on what didn’t do well and what we are still lacking rather than on what we did well. We are living either in the past or the future. We find it hard to relax and enjoy the present.
What about the parts you kill off as they don’t fit with the image you want to portray?
Having an “unrelenting standards” schema also affects how we interact. It’s difficult to be fully ourselves with others if we feel we are not quite good enough. So, we put up a front. We show the polished bits and hide the cracks. We end up identifying with our shiny achievements. When something happens like unemployment, being passed over for promotion or a project going wrong, we feel crushed, depressed, and panicked.
Here’s the thing: those unlikeable parts will make themselves heard.
As our taskmaster pushes us relentlessly on, other parts of us rebel. We may not identify them as “us” and choose to ignore them. They show up in many ways. For example, binge drinking, comfort eating, road rage, snapping at our partner, emotional meltdowns, insomnia, tension headaches, or panic attacks, amongst others. If we do a really good job of stuffing them down, then they pop up in more cunning ways such as making us so ill that we can’t go to work or hurting our back so much that we are forced to lie down and take a break.
At the root of an unrelenting standards schema is often a vulnerable child. A child that didn’t get her need for empathy, acceptance, nurturance, and guidance met. By pushing ourselves harder and harder we are continuing to deprive her emotionally.
Can you pay attention next time your vulnerable child calls out to you? When she’s feeling sad, what does she want? When she’s angry or lonely, what does she crave?
Can you allow her feelings rather than dismissing them because they seem silly and don’t fit with your schedule? Can you find some compassion for the parts of you that you deem unworthy?
Part of the challenge of changing is being okay with just okay. This can feel unfamiliar, unnerving, and downright wrong if we have unrelenting standards. We have established well-developed neural pathways wiring us to keep pushing on.
Creating new neural pathways for more self-accepting behaviour takes time and practice. But we can change with time and practice, that’s what neuroplasticity means. As neuroscientist Hebb said, neurons that fire together, wire together.
Here are a few experiments to get you there:
1. Compare perfection with satisfaction.
In his book, Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy, David Burns suggests making a list of activities we have completed and then rating how we did them and how satisfying they were. The aim is to become aware that our perfectionism makes life fraught, tense, and unsatisfying. Is it really worth it? Indeed, it can even lead to producing bad work as we are so focused on the detail we forget the big picture. Who hasn’t had the experience of truly not giving damn and then producing some of their best work ever?
2. Schedule your time and focus on the process, not the outcome.
We can limit the amount of time we spend on a task before forcing ourselves to move on. We can also focus on perfecting the processes rather than on getting a perfect outcome. For example, rather than expecting myself to deliver a perfect therapy session for each and every client, I can focus on process goals. I aim to show up, be present, stay curious, get supervision, go on training, and practice self-care. If I work on these process goals I am less likely to take it personally if a client tells me they had a bad session.
3. Focus on the positive…and play!
We can become aware of how we tend to focus on what we do wrong and what’s not good enough and balance that with noticing what we do right and well. We can also schedule in more play time. Playtime? I don’t have time for that, we say. Dr. Stuart Brown describes how playing actually makes us more productive, creative, and focussed—and it is a great way to relieve stress.
“Play is nature’s greatest tool for creating new neural networks and for reconciling cognitive difficulties…It is not at all uncommon for people to come back not only re-energised, but also with fresh ideas for work.” ~ Stuart Brown
What does play mean to you? Can you take the time to find out?
We can feel ambivalent about letting go of our unrelenting standards. After all, they have given us a brilliant CV, a well-paid job, a perfect washboard stomach, or 5,000 “friends” on Facebook. We might want to hold on to them tightly. What will we become if we give them up?
Challenging our standards means choosing how much we do rather than feeling compelled to do. Challenging them means thinking of our overall wellbeing when we make our choices. It doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great things. In fact, you may achieve even more satisfying things!
Have you got this? I hope so because I’d really like for you to feel happier.
Brown, S, M.D. (2010), “Play – How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul”, Penguin, New York.
Burns, D.D, M.D. (1999), “Feeling Good, The New Mood Therapy’, Avon Books, New York.
Young, J.E. & Janet, S. K, “Reinventing Your Life’, Plume, New York, 1993.
Author: Alexandra Schlotterbeck Stevens
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