On Mindful Monday, my readers and I practice the art of pausing, TRYING to be still, or considering, ever so briefly, the big picture. We’re hoping this soul time will provide enough peace of mind to get us through the week!
As I mentioned on my Ash Wednesday video, I am dedicating each Monday during Lent to one of the six practices of simplification that Abby Seixas writes about in her book, “Finding the Deep River Within.” The fourth week of Lent, then, is about taming self-expectations, or as Abby explains, “learning to lighten up and take the self-critical voice of perfectionism less seriously.”
Boy do I have a lot of work to do in this area. In fact, I think this is the biggest challenge of living with depression: identifying the self-critical voice as a symptom of my illness rather than a fair assessment of how I’m doing.
I’ve often referred to unrealistic expectations as the “trophy wife of Perfectionism.” The nauseating twosome travel as a pair. With perfectionism comes unrealistic expectations, and vice versa. I love the verse by Pema Chodron with which Abby begins her chapter on self-expectations:
Maybe the most important teaching is to lighten up and relax. It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy mixed-up minds to remember that what we’re doing is unlocking a softness that is in us and letting it spread. We’re letting it blur the sharp corners of self-criticism and complaint.
Unlocking the softness. I like that. Because whenever I think of my to-do list and my tall list of expectations, my whole body stiffens. Until I realize what I’m asking of myself, at which point I try to remind myself to breathe. Just breathe. Abby explains, “When our expectations are too high or are held too tightly, the resulting pressure can cause us to feel driven, fragmented, and cut off from ourselves and others, not to mention unhappy. … We chain ourselves to the treadmill of endless striving and doing.”
Recently, I whined to a fellow mental-health blogger about the pace with which we bloggers are expected to keep up, not only with the posts that we compose, but with all the other articles out there in our field so that we can link to them, because then they will link to us, and so on. I told him that I realize I have too much stress in my life but I don’t have a clue as to how to relieve it. Because now more than ever my family needs my paycheck.
“Just remember your priorities,” he said, advice that complements my morning meditation from Henri Nouwen:
Somewhere deep in our hearts we already know that success, fame, influence, power, and money do not give us the inner joy and peace we crave. Somewhere we can even sense a certain envy of those who have shed all false ambitions and found a deeper fulfillment in their relationship with God. Yes, somewhere we can even get a taste of that mysterious joy in the smile of those who have nothing to lose.
Eric has that mysterious joy in his smile. He is disappointed he doesn’t have more work right now in this abysmal housing market, but he isn’t devastated by it like I might be if Beyond Blue got yanked from me. The spouse of my blogger friend also has the mysterious smile and reminds him every day to put the work down and get into bed or swap the time invested into getting a few more hits a day into engaging with his kids.
We both agreed that it’s harder to tame your self-expectations or to concentrate on the bigger picture when you have a mood disorder. And I don’t mean that as an excuse, but more as a consolation to others who struggle with self-expectations as much as I do. Perfectionism and his trophy wife, unrealistic expectations, are working overtime in the prefrontal cortexes of those blessed with unique brain chemistry. We are afraid of messes, maybe because we are making them. Anne Lamott writes in “Bird by Bird”:
Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground….Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation.
I should invite Anne to my home. She would feel very comfortable and pleased.
So how, exactly, do you tame the self-critic? Abby offers four proactive steps to help us get rid of the “shoulds”:
- Get to know the roots of expectations. Are they rooted in childhood? (You know the answer to this question is always yes, right?)
- Get to know the internal voices that maintain our expectations. Where is the voice of perfectionism and the voice of the inner critic coming from.
- Question those voices, and make conscious choices about lightening up. I like Abby’s technique of simply asking “Who says? Who says I need to get x amount of page views or else I’m worthless?”
- Find and cultivate the voice of unconditional friendliness toward ourselves. Says Abby: “Part of the process of slowing down and creating balance and depth in our lives involves learning how to let ourselves be and to accept things as they are.”
I like those, especially the first three. I don’t see number four happening anytime soon. However, instead of self-acceptance, I simply try to offer what I am and all that I do to God, and for God to try to make something beautiful from it. That’s what I pray every morning, in the words of Thomas Merton:
All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.