Often, we are tougher on ourselves than we need to be. We think we are motivated by this pressure, but it can actually stagnate our progress. Instead of focusing on doing our best, we are overly aware of the possibility of failure. What we may actually benefit from is being more intentional about how we approach life’s challenges.
The following are 5 steps you can take to put less pressure on yourself in everyday life:
1. Let it Go! There is a reason that the classic song from Frozen has become a mantra among children and adults alike. So, the day didn’t turn out the way you expected. Maybe you got an unexpected parking ticket or financial setback. Rather than drowning in negative thoughts, start focusing on the solutions. Deal with the situation at hand and move on, because fixating on it only makes you feel worse about yourself. We all make mistakes. Give yourself permission to not be defined by this moment, and move on.
2. Give yourself credit for what you have accomplished. How many times do we measure ourselves by our shortcomings? When we fall short of our expectations, do we sit down and reflect on what we did well, or what we learned? We should! We can learn a lot about problem solving by reflecting on how we generated solutions in the past. There was a time when those problems seemed unsolvable as well.
3. Stop comparing yourself to others. What if you really knew the truth about everyone else’s struggles? Would it make you feel better about your own? Some of us have only come into success after going through debt, heartbreak, loss, illness, and every form of suffering in between. In fact, we are often in a position to enjoy success because we have been through times that allowed us to develop perspective and appreciate the difference.
4. Put your pride to the side and ask for help. Maybe your ego is telling you that you have to figure this out all by yourself. Start challenging that belief. Practice these statements:
“I will ask for help”. “I will evaluate what resources I already have that can help me learn more about this”. “I will reach out to someone (who likes to provide support) when I feel stuck”.
5. Press the easy button. What one thing could you do right now, and do it well? Instead of expecting yourself to master a huge project immediately, identify a task that will allow you to get started. For example, if you have multiple areas you need to become well-versed in, don’t stress about how much time it will take to focus on them all. Approximate how long it will take you to do one task, and fully dedicate yourself to it. Yes, I’m recommending that you avoid multitasking, especially if you hope to do something well. Once you finish that task, take a moment before moving to the next one. Do something to acknowledge or reward yourself. You can make time for a quick walk, or do something as simple as close your eyes for a moment of mindfulness.
When addressing a major change, start with small steps. If you are contemplating weight loss, you can start by adding more servings of vegetables to your diet, or making it a goal to walk around the block once per day. Incremental victories help you build momentum, which can give you a greater sense of motivation in conquering steps that require more effort or commitment. I joined Weight Watchers for a year, following a weight gain of 30 pounds due to steroid medications. My first goal was to lose 5 pounds of my weight, then 5% of my weight, followed by 10%. Celebrating those small victories helped me stay resolved, even though I had chosen to lose weight at one of the hardest times of the year (the holiday season!).
My Story: Why using pressure to motivate myself ultimately failed
I can remember as early as junior high, putting enormous pressure on myself to conquer a new subject and become good at it immediately. Of course, as time went on, everything I studied became harder. I struggled with the idea that I would need to work hard and endure many setbacks in order to master a given topic. For example, although I wanted to become a medical doctor as a freshman, I had no passion for the required courses, or a path that would ultimately include residency. I had to question whether I wanted my goals enough to work towards them over an extended period of time. The motivating question became “Do I truly feel called to this, and do I have a deep, unwavering commitment to the work and sacrifices that it entails” rather than “Can I do this?”
My expectations of being a phenom in all areas was of course, unrealistic. Would you want to operated on by a surgeon who said they were a natural, and did not need practice? Of course not! You would be more likely to trust an individual who is committed to learning their skill over an extended period of time, and who is able to think critically in difficult situations. The pressure that I felt always incited anxiety, which nearly made it impossible to think clearly.
While I was initially driven by the idea of success, over time, it had less and less over time to do with my own personal happiness. I was too concerned with making progress to question whether my path still made sense for me. I became dependent on this practice, and did not think that I would be productive without it. My internal motivator was a taskmaster, with little tolerance for error. I have learned, however, that I’m more motivated to do my best when I grant myself the space to fumble and to not know exactly what I am doing at first. In this living laboratory, I explore my problems, try on solutions, learn from my mistakes, build confidence, and over time, develop expertise in what I am doing.
Want to be happier? Try practicing self-compassion
Research conducted by Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin found that self-compassion is linked to lower levels of depression and greater satisfaction with life. Rather than fixating on your feelings, you can acknowledge them without giving them tremendous power. Instead of criticizing yourself when you experience failure, try responding in a supportive, encouraging manner to help yourself get back up on your feet. Rather than assuming that all bad things in life are your fault, consider that they are only one part of a larger human experience. One mantra I repeat as a reminder to be brave and move forward is, “Sure, bad things could happen, but good things could happen too.”
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