Thoughts on: The Human Nature of Being Too Hard on Yourself

Today, I was sitting at home with my brother for my lunch break, and we were talking about my brother’s current progress with his studies for the DAT. With a month away, I think the pressure has been slowly increasing ever so slightly. This morning, he was having difficulty waking up, having stayed up late studying the night prior. He was so tired that he called out ofwork, unable to make his usual morning shift.

Now my brother and I, though similar in some things, are also quite different in other things. When I took the DAT the first time, I did not even study. In fact, I did not even know the sections that we were going to be tested on. I just walked in there and took it. Obviously, I didn’t do too well, but honestly, I didn’t do horribly either. The second time, I decided to borrow a DAT book from the library and study a little bit a day, not in any structured way, but rather, freely, whenever I had extra time. It was kind of a last priority. I entered the test without having finished the DAT review book, actually. The second time, I scored really well. I don’t believe it was because I studied the material so much, but rather, because I saw the test once before and knew what questions to expect and how to answer them.

I guess you can say I am a bit relaxed when it comes to these things. It’s partly due to an exorbitant confidence in myself (that may be misguided at times) and partly a feeling of, “Oh well, what happens, happens.” I guess that’s putting it in a bit too oversimplified of a way. It’s not that I don’t try, I try pretty hard in a lot of things that I do. But I never try so hard as to inconvenience myself too greatly. I have a tendency to put my best efforts in everything all the time, so I can comfortably retire at my usual sleeping hour every night, despite unfinished work, and sleep soundly knowing that I did my best in the amount of time that I had. I tend to have a sense of ease and trust in my ability to perform well. Some call that arrogance, but I swear, it’s never done in a malicious manner. I like to attribute it more to a c’est la vie mentality.

My brother does equally well as I but he is what we call in my language a “segurista“. He goes above and beyond the level of preparedness necessary to ace a test. If I could assemble a team to carry me through a zombie apocalypse, he would definitely be on it. I’m not sure if his zeal stems from anxiety (possibly) or insecurity (unlikely), but there’s almost this fear that if he does not put in the most of his efforts, all hell would break lose and the whole system would fall apart and it would all be for naught.

When he told me that he had stayed up until 3 am last night studying, I asked him why he didn’t study yesterday during the day, to which he replied, “I did.” I guess the kid studied 12 hours yesterday, which to me is mind boggling. The crazy thing is, he has already gone through all the study material once. Even crazier was when he told me that he was reviewing over the study guide and made 360 flashcards yesterday off of 20 pages of study guide. And while my frugal self borrowed whatever DAT book the library had on the shelf for free, my little bro has purchased every video, tutorial, and packet that was rated highest in pass rate for the DAT.

Which led us to the following discussion. I asked him why he felt like he needed to work that hard. I expressed that it’s a bit overkill, and certainly not worth it if he was not even able to wake up in the mornings due to exhaustion. He was trading in healthy, among other things, in exchange for something that does not even increase his feeling of security. I think the ultimate answer was that he did not want to fail. He really wanted to give his best in order to do his best, which is commendable, surely, but not exactly sustainable.

At times, I think, we are too hard on ourselves. We treat ourselves in really unkind ways, and push ourselves to crazy limits, and contain ourselves in such structured boxes. We can have such high expectations of ourselves and when we don’t meet those expectations, we feel disappointment in our abilities or lack thereof. We don’t like to see ourselves fail, and sometimes, we don’t allow ourselves failure. When we do, we feel very unworthy, somehow as if we are less. I don’t know what it is that trains us to be this way. Maybe it’s the weight of society and its judgements that fuel our need to succeed. I like to think it’s our human goodness that makes us want to carry the weight on our shoulders. Either way, it’s not entirely good for the human soul to be so harsh.  And so I asked him, “Why do you treat yourself that way? You don’t treat anyone else that way, so why do you allow yourself to do that to you?” 

When we watch a friend or a child try their best and then fail, we don’t go up to them and call them a failure. At least, I hope not. We are kind and lift them up and tell them that life moves on and there’ll be more chances and more opportunities. If they try again, we’re sure they’ll get it next time! If we treat other people naturally in this way, then why is it so easy for us to dump on ourselves? We recite the old addage, “treat others the way you want to be treated”, but do we follow our own advice?

Sometimes, people just need to hear that what they are doing is enough. Can we gift that same thing to ourselves?

My advice?

— Instead of being fixated on success, have a simple intention of improving a little bit every day.

— Instead of fearing failure, embrace the possibility of failure, with the understanding that failure will teach you more about yourself than any success would.

— Try your best in everything you do, without going out of your way to inconvenience yourself. Anything you do after your best efforts will no longer be considered your best efforts, once you’ve detracted from other aspects of your life. Know that you can’t perform your best at all, when you’re short on sleep, or are hungry, or are emotionally deprived, or are spiritually exhausted.

— Stop trying to control everything in life. Do what you have to do, but also learn how to roll with the tide.

— You can carpe diem, but also know, c’est la vie. It’s all about balance, in the end.

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