Are We Making Ourselves Sick By Holding Ourselves to Out-Of-Context Standards?

credit-today-mothers-day-ecard-someecardsI look around at the people in my life that I have worked with or been friends with an I see a lot of overachievers and people who hold themselves to pretty high standards.  As I hold a magnifying glass to the state of mind / body / soul of those folks (including myself), I see a good deal of physical and emotional maladies.  We often laugh and call them our “loveable quirks” or “neuroses”.  We laugh at Woody Allen movies because we relate to the ridiculousness of our conditions – so tightly wound that most of us are on the verge of (or have already accomplished) implosion.

I was talking to a friend today who is about to go in for Hernia surgery.  Arguably, this person is one of the smartest, most talented and also kindest, most empathetic people I know.  At the same time, this individual is one of the said over-achievers I worry about the most: always stressed and stretched and living in a constant state of worry.  Before he took on his full professional gig, this guy competed on a professional athletic circuit:  one where you are measured on a scale of 1 to 10 and you strive to always get that perfect score.  I feel like he has carried this measurement with him into his total lifestyle context  and measurement of his value as a professional, father, husband, friend, etc. and  it is one of the reasons why he is so tightly wound.   My point is that, in the context of competitive sports, this striving for perfection is part of the culture and the task and is important for success in that sphere.  It is the rule of one sociological reality because it is conducive to the proper functioning of participants in that structure, but is actually maladaptive in the context of a professional setting and , well, life in day-to-day society.

I pick on this one friend of mine but can say that I am also guilty of misappropriating guiding behavioral rules from one context to the next. For example: a big part of my job is to be proactive about finding creative ways to solve meaningful problems and doing it quickly, with discipline and a definitive point-in-time and results-oriented end goal in mind.  I often make the mistake of carrying that over into my home life.  For instance, when my wife is telling me about her day or a conflict / issue she is having with work or otherwise and rather than just being there to be an objective listener (which is the role she is asking me to play), I will jump into “efficient problem solver” mode to help fix it.  This is not the appropriate behavior in that situation and it causes her stress and ultimately can be frustrating for me.

There is this theory in Sociology that says one way society functions properly is by making sure everybody has a “label” that designates our role as a part of that society and ultimately will determine our concept of self and behavior in sustaining the functioning of that society.  The problem is that sometimes people are given labels based on one small contextual circle of their lives or point-in-time role, to the detriment of normal functioning in their own lives and achievement of happiness.

For example: if a child is caught stealing a candy bar when he is young and word gets around that he is a “juvenile delinquent” or he is prosecuted and convicted of that one mistake – he will likely internalize that label and essentially  spend the rest of his life living up to that designation.   For society, it works because there is always that person out there behaving “badly” to remind us of what not to do.  But for that individual, their life will be in a permanent state of disrepair.

Conversely, there is the girl may have been the oldest in her household and always got great grades, was successful at sports and was the shining star in her family: to the point where her siblings looked up to her, her peer’s parents pointed to her as an example and she was ultimately singled out as “the golden child”.  That same girl may likely grow up holding herself to such high standards in every aspect of her life that she ends up working herself to exhaustion to achieve higher and higher standards so she can ensure her place at the top of the heap because it is her role to do so.  The result:  likely a lifetime filled with prescription medications and stress-related ailments.

I presume that this is a standard occurrence for a lot of people in that high-achieving space.  We convince ourselves that we need to work at living up to a label that may have been given to us in another context – with no room to shift or move – and ultimately it ends up making us sick or causing us to fail in a situation where the behavior coinciding with that label is not appropriate.  And it’s only until some cataclysmic health event happens or someone brave enough to call us out says something that we even begin to look in the mirror to change for benefit of our own well-being.

So, in this beginning of a new year (and a new Baktun!), I encourage all of us to look and the mirror and ask ourselves it’s time to peel off some of those maladaptive labels?  Or maybe try on a few new ones from time to time.  Consider your context and re-adjust your standards.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t always seek to be your better – but “better” is relative – not a static measure that applies from one context to all others.   Be a better spouse by choosing the label of “listener and nurturer”.  Be a better professional  by being the “voice of reason” or “team leader” or “smart time manager”.   Be clear about what those goals are, rather than “I need to be perfect”.  Perfect is not only a fuzzy standard, but it’s also very limiting.  Because it implies no more room for growth – and there is always room for growth.

“There is no best. Only Better”.

So make sure you are living in your context, strive to be better in ways that are meaningful to that context and save yourself a (literal) headache.  You’ll be a happier, healthier person – which will indeed allow you to grow in ways you never knew possible.

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