Updated: Sep 30
A couple of years back I had a client who was super successful, very measured, proper, perfectionist even. It kind of worked for her, she was doing very well for herself in a lot of areas. However, she wasn’t happy. Tuning in to what was going on, we found that she had very high expectations of herself, and so even with this level of success, she always felt that she wasn’t doing enough. She always fell short.
What we discovered together, was that this bar had been placed high by her parents when she was young. They had meant well, they wanted her to strive for excellence and felt that putting the bar higher would mean she would stay motivated to improve. Good theory.
We visualised this as an actual bar, and I asked to to tune in to where it was in relation to her. It was out of reach. She imagined herself as that young one, and even when she jumped her fingers still fell short of the bar. It had been set at a height which meant that no matter how hard she tried, she would never meet the expectation. So even though she shone bright and shot past her fellow students in terms of achievements, she felt like a perpetual failure.
The funny thing, is that she didn’t grow into meeting the height of this bar as she grew up. As she grew, the bar stayed that same distance away from her, ever increasing in height as her capacity, skill, and experience increased, so that it was forever tauntingly out of reach. Yikes!
Having internalised the feeling of this ‘out of reach’ target, the result was a constant straining towards it, and a feeling of not being good enough as she was. The perpetually dangling carrot moved further away as she accumulated accolades, and the promise of feeling good enough if just one more goal was smashed never materialised. To outsiders, she was the vision of success. Her inner experience was a chaotic scene of self-criticism, frantic seeking, and deeply held shame. It took a toll on her health too. As she over-scheduled herself, over-worked, and didn’t stop to celebrate and rest along the way, her chronically high stress levels was taking her dangerously close to burnout. She experienced regular fatigue (which she pushed through) and occasional migraines (which were the only things that could get her to stop, sometimes taking her out for days at a time). She recognised that this wasn’t sustainable, but had no idea how to change it.
Of course, it had occurred to her that taking it easier, slowing down, maybe even taking a holiday would help. Yet in practice, this wasn’t working for her. As soon as she stopped, the guilt would kick in, along with the feeling that she ‘should’ be doing something productive, and her mind would stay in overdrive. It was anything but relaxing. In fact, she just didn’t know how to relax. Her system was so unaccustomed to it! Worst of all was the shame that threatened to overwhelm her when she slowed down. We uncovered a belief inside her that her worth and value was tied to what she did and achieved. So when she stopped ‘doing’ she became worthless, and dispensable, and this feeling was intolerable to her. The solution to being overwhelmed with these intolerable feelings? Yup, you guessed it. Hit the grindstone!
The work we did together involved going inside to her imaginal space, and connecting with that earnest child standing under that oppressive bar. I made the invitation for her adult self to stand there with the child. Her adult self in that scene could reach the bar, being much taller than the child. I coached her through a dialogue with the child, and explored her resistance and reasoning around keeping the bar in place, and after some time, all the parts of her were aligned with the idea of bringing the bar into the child’s reach. She wanted it to be high, yet reachable. And so her adult self corrected this, bringing the bar down to the child’s level. We then allowed this shift to ripple through her life, seeing the child grow up to her current age with the proportions staying at this comfortable level.
Once she got back into the present we explored what this would mean for her current life situation, what the healthy reasonable goals were for herself, what a sustainable amount of R&R looked like, and a flexible and achievable plan to soften into this new rhythm. Part of her practice going forward would be to notice when that striving feeling reared up, and relate to it in a new way. Rather than let it take the reins and push her too hard, she would recognise it as a response to the underlying difficult feelings, and she would turn her loving attention towards those more vulnerable feelings. She learnt how to be with, reassure, encourage, and support those parts that had internalised the message that she wasn’t good enough, and after a few months of consistent re-parenting of these parts, they began to feel lighter, happier, more playful, and content with themselves.
With nothing to trigger the striving part to hype up into overdrive, the natural work life balance she maintained was more natural. It no longer took will power. Her rest time was restorative, and for the first time, enjoyable. A by product she didn’t expect was that her success actually increased. She attributed this to how present she now was when she was working. She was more effective during her ‘on time’ as she called it, because she had enough ‘off time’. She discovered that the ‘off time’ was when most of her truly inspired ideas came through, so the action she took in her ‘on time’ was more on point and effective.
You would think, having coached this client through this process, that my own expectation bar would be nicely situated. And to some extent, it was. I’d softened my unrealistic expectations a lot since my teenage years and twenties, and my basic position was much more aligned, and I no longer made major life choices based on these underlying drivers. I only share exercises with clients that I’ve sincerely engaged with myself, and found to work, so this ‘bar setting’ exercise had been part of my own process around creating realistic expectations of myself. And yet, there was a little tug inside me, telling me to take a closer look inside.
I so often find that there is a kind of synchronistic dance between my own healing and growth, and that of my clients. Staying in integrity for me includes staying open and willing to take a second (third, or forth!) look inside and to honestly engage in my own healing on an ongoing basis. So I heard the little call, and took some time to listen inwardly. Yes, I heard confirmation, I had lowered the bar for myself. And yet, even though the bar was lower now, and felt much more realistic, with goals I could achieve, there was still something needing to be adjusted in the energy with which I was pursuing them. I got the message that the goal being achievable is just the first step. The strength of energy and the tenacity and the effort with which I still strove for those (now acheivable) goals was still exhausting me. If I string those achievable goals together in an assault course and don't rest between them, in essence it was still too much to expect of myself. Time for another go around the spiral of life, and another lesson at this deeper layer of the onion!
I spend some time listening to the part of me that carries this drive, this inner dynamo that propels me from one task to another, and heard a familiar story. She (this little 'inner manager' of mine!) was not wanting to waste time. She has big ideas! She wants to help as many people as possible, she wants to change the world! She knows that I can make a difference in this lifetime and it won't do to sit around wasting time! I was curious. Where did she get the idea that resting meant wasting time? Did she know that balance would be important to sustain my helpfulness? That I'd be no good to anyone burnt out? That part of my purpose might even include recreation with loved ones, and play, and spontaneous fun? No, it hadn't occurred to her. She was intrigued, and leant in to hear more from me. She sat on my lap, now appearing to me as a young teenager. I let her feel the compassion in my heart, and she shared with me that it was exhausting.
"Why do you do it?" I asked with genuine curiosity. "What are you afraid would happen if you relaxed a little."
"If I don't do it, I won't amount to anything." She explained.
"Where did you get that idea?" I asked.
"Mum." Clarity dawned. "Mum isn't happy with me laying about. She says I'm lazy. She says if I don't have anything to do, she'll give me something to get on with. She means chores. There's always something that needs to be done."
"That makes sense." I validate her. I do really get it now, why she has this perspective. "You weren't really given space to play, but felt like you needed to be productive, is that right?"
'Yes. If I don't find something useful to do, I'll be told off and given more chores."