Something that characterizes many of my anxious and stressed clients is a drive to achieve. It is usually around work - a drive to go up a career ladder, to complete bigger and better projects, pass ever higher exams - but sometimes it's about relationships, being a good mother, a good husband, a good person.
Unfortunately a common companion of this desire to achieve is a fear of failure. Hence the stress.
The question is, why is achievement so important to many of us? What is at stake here? This week's tip explores.
When I was eight years old I knitted a scarf. It was a project at my primary school, where the uniform was grey and red. The scarf was to be red. As it was the first time any of us had knitted, we used the plain knit stitch. Now even my untutored eye could see that this was an inferior stitch. No scarf I had ever seen was in this stitch. But that was what we were taught and that was what we did. It took hours and hours to knit this scarf, but in the end I had one, around four feet long. It was a disaster. The rows were all uneven, and the edges looked like a series of hairpin turns. I was devastated. I took it to the teacher and told her I wanted to do it again. I remember this teacher particularly well as she seemed to have noticed and understood that under my quiet exterior was, much of the time, anguish. She was kind and reassured me that the scarf was fine. 'Really Anita, it's fine'. But I knew with complete certainty that it wasn't and I unraveled the entire thing and started again.
It is sad to say that the subsequent version was no better, and because I couldn't understand why it kept turning out so badly and I had no idea what to do about it in the end I had to admit defeat. As you can tell by the clarity of my memory, it is still with me!
If you step back and take an objective look at this example, as one of many where people of all ages are devastated by apparently trivial setbacks, you can't help but be astonished and bewildered. What on earth is going on?
Well, after all these years I think I have the answer, and it lies in this question:
'Who or what did I think I was at that moment?'
When I pose myself this question, there is no doubt in my mind that I thought I was the scarf. I thought I was this scrappy piece of red wool with uneven rows and edges that no-one would ever want to wear.
I heard a gymnastics coach talking on the television recently. He was saying how it was possible to tell, at an early stage, whether a child was going to make it to the top of this field. 'It is nothing to do with talent,' he said, 'it is to do with how they deal with setbacks. A child who falls off the beam or the bars or whatever it is, and gets up, laughs and tries again, will do well. The child who reacts to a fall with anxiety and self recrimination will not'.
People who laugh when they fall, get up and try again, have a sense of self that is independent of their achievements. They enjoy their achievements but are not defined by them. People who worry and defend and self-recriminate when they make a mistake, have a sense of self that is dependent on what they do. They don't have achievements and failures, they are those achievements and failures.
A recent client of mine was struggling with anxiety and self-recrimination over a report he was writing. He had completed a draft and sent it round to his colleagues for comments. Although he had had a fair bit of praise, there were also a number of suggestions and criticisms. Forgetting the praise, he was instantly upset by each suggestion and criticism; he argued the points with his colleagues, he defended what he had done, and for good measure he also beat himself up for arguing with colleagues and being defensive. In the end he reluctantly agreed to take on some of the comments but he felt he had failed.
I asked him the same question, 'who or what did you think you were?' He sat with his head in his hands as he pondered the answer. 'I haven't got it exactly,' he said at last, lifting his head to look at me, 'but I'm realizing that at some level I thought I was the report. Although the criticisms were about the report, they felt as though they were about me. It's confusing.'
And it is confusing, because on the one hand we know, logically, that we are not our work, but on the other we feel as elated by our achievements, and as devastated by our failures, as though we actually were them. And if that's the case, and our whole sense of self is at stake, then no wonder we're afraid.
Once my client realised the madness of thinking he was his report he was able to get a bit of distance from it. Suddenly people's suggestions and criticisms felt less personal and more helpful and he realised that
the final document would be a joint effort and not a personal monument. He felt the stress falling away and a new ease and enthsusiasm for the work.
Think of a project you have been involved in, or a role that you have played, that went extremely well. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is indifferent and 10 is completely fantastic, how did you feel?
Think of a time when a project or role was not going so well, when you received criticism, even if it was only minor. On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is absolutely fine and 10 is completely devastated, how did you feel?
It would be very strange not to be pleased by achievement and at least a little deflated by criticism, but if your scores are very high for both of these, ask yourself the question, 'Who or what did you think you were at that time?' As a clue, if you are experiencing strong feelings and your attention is on something outside of yourself, such as a report or a scarf, the chances are that you are identifying with whatever that thing is; that you have poured your sense of self into that thing.
If that is true for you, take a moment to bring your attention back to yourself and see what you find there.
Do let me know how you get on.
Have a great week, whether or not you achieve!