Do you have a friend who can always be counted on to recommend amazing books? I do, and she even created a cool private Facebook book club where a group of us who live miles apart can compare notes on whatever book we are reading. Her latest recommendation is Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try Hard Life by Emily P. Freeman.
Freeman is Christian and there is an emphasis on her faith throughout, but I won't touch on that aspect of the book in this discussion. It was the brave, brazen way she expresses the pressures that so many of us feel, the thoughts we never dare express out loud, that additionally impressed me. I'll be sharing some excerpts here that I hope will crack you open like they did me.
I'm just starting to fully realize what an impact the pressure to perform, please and be perfect has had, and continues to have, on my life. I've been aware of it for a long time and have made such progress from the days when I had to excel at anything and everything. I became addicted to praise and approval as a young child, and for most of my life cared more about doing what would make others proud or happy than what would truly light me up and nourish me. I believe this was a significant root of the depression I used to suffer from.
There is still this undercurrent of performance, of needing to keep everyone happy, of wanting to be universally liked and approved of (even by people who I might not be that fond of), to not cause anyone stress, discomfort or unhappiness through my choices. To want to be perfect.
Here are some of Freeman's observations, along with my own thoughts and comments:
1) "I constantly worried that my imperfect status would be discovered. I often experienced guilt but didn’t know why. I felt the heavy weight of impossible expectations and had the insatiable desire to explain every mistake."
Do you experience this? Do you watch yourself in interactions with others, being careful to catch and fix any mistakes (e.g. something you said that could be misinterpreted in a negative light, or perhaps you weren't kind or supportive or empathetic enough)?
What if you just relaxed? What if you trusted that you are kind and a generally good person, and that most people sense this—and what does it really matter anyway, that they recognize it? You don't need to manage every impression.
2) "I focused on the things I could handle, the things I excelled in, my disciplined life, and my unshakeable good mood."
Are you the person everyone can count on to cheer them up, make them laugh, and help them see the silver lining? Are you always (or almost always) easy to be around, and make few demands on others?
So many of us are trying to live up to expectations or reputations. A good reputation is a good thing, but it goes bad when you start to feel that you can't be human. What if you just let yourself be your messy human self and trusted that all would be okay anyway? That your real self, with its full range of emotion and performance (from great to profoundly imperfect) is just fine. More than enough, actually.
3) "I taught people around me that I had no needs and then was secretly angry with them for believing me."
Have you done this one? One of the things I've worked on lately is to express my needs really clearly. If I need it, it's important and I can safely express it. What a revelation.
4) "Because I care so much what you think, my hiding has everything to do with you. I desperately want to manage your opinion of me. Nearly everything I do is to convince you I am good. If I sense any hint of disbelief on your part that I am good, if it seems your opinion is other than what I wish it to be, it becomes my job to change your mind."
If someone doesn't see the truth about you, or disapproves of you in some way, do you feel the need to change their mind? This is exhausting and very hard to let go of if this is how you've lived your life forever. Become aware of when you're doing it and just let it go. There are far better things to spend your energy and your thoughts on.
5) "The energy it takes to live for you is killing me..."
Is it killing you? Let's take a deep breath together and resolve to stop trying so hard. Live for what you believe to be good, right, and true. Do your best to be kind and treat people well, without needing to be perfect. Do it without self-consciousness or self-evaluation. Sometimes you will fail. That's okay.
I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully let go of the relentless standards, people-pleasing and performing that have been the stuff of life since I was a small child, but I can begin (and begin again, every day) by cultivating awareness of what I habitually do and why. Even if this pattern in you seems too deeply entrenched to change, I encourage you to be hopeful and to start by just noticing it.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and wellness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and author. She is dedicated to helping people get healthy, reduce stress and enjoy more meaningful lives. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—contact firstname.lastname@example.org (link sends e-mail) or visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013