Be gentle with yourself

By: Arthur Wenk , Nov 17, 2012

Do I put too much pressure on myself to be successful?

What would happen if you took the pressure off?

Do you believe that unless you constantly drive yourself, you will end up becoming fat, lazy and a bump on a log? If you are reading this article on self-improvement, the chances are very good that this belief is false, in which case it may be useful for you to ask yourself where it came from. Can you identify a voice behind the words? Could it be the voice of a parent?

Successful people frequently entertain the unarticulated belief that without constant pressure they will cease being productive, disciplined, organized—in short, successful. They fear that their success is precarious, contingent and temporary. Only by continually whipping themselves can they maintain their record of accomplishments.

What would happen if you took the pressure off? What would be the result if you decided to be gentle with yourself? You may have a look of horror on your face as you read those words, imagining that if you relieved the pressure you would immediately slack off, become inefficient, and reveal yourself to be the lazy sod that you always knew to be your essential identity.

So let’s try it again. When you read the words “be gentle with yourself,” isn’t there a part of you that yearns for that more generous treatment? When you get past the fear of laziness and unproductivity, isn’t there an inner voice that says, “Yes, please.” That voice is likely to be your authentic self, longing to be treated better.

I can identify with the driven self. When a therapist told me, “You are perfect just the way you are,” I scoffed at her. No way, I insisted. But now I offer these words to you. You are perfect just the way you are. This doesn’t mean that you can’t change or grow. For example, if you learned to speak Portuguese you would have a new skill. But the inability to speak Portuguese now hardly constitutes a personal deficiency.

“But aren’t we supposed to work on overcoming our weaknesses?” you may ask. Not really: not framed that way. If you play a sport, and are the kind of person who reads articles on self-improvement, you probably try to keep improving your performance in that sport. I can only applaud your efforts. My concern comes with your attitude toward yourself.

You may have seen and deplored parents who continually criticize their child’s performance on the field or on the ice or in school. You may even have been the child of such a parent. As a parent yourself, you presumably want to encourage your children in ways that will promote their enjoyment of the activities in question. I am encouraging you to take the same attitude toward yourself. Instead of whipping, driving, pushing and demanding, try being gentle with yourself.

How that looks in practice will vary with each individual, but here are some possibilities to consider:

  • Allow yourself some unscheduled down time that isn’t committed to work, family, or personal commitments;
  • Make a deliberate departure from your routine in order to embrace the unpredicted;
  • Read for pleasure;
  • Make a list of all the things you’ve wanted to do but can’t find time for, and then try to do one each day;
  • Remember the 80%/20% rule, which says that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Being gentle with yourself means settling for 80% at least some of the time, and not always insisting on 100% perfection;
  • Seek opportunities to do things that make no contribution to the “bottom line,” like petting your dog, looking at the moon, or going for a walk;
  • Stop insisting on being productive all the time;
  • Take time to congratulate yourself for what you’ve already accomplished instead of focusing entirely on what remains to be done;
  • Insist on the basics—getting enough sleep, eating healthily, getting exercise—as the rule rather than the exception;
  • Deliberately walk really slowly and appreciate what that feels like;
  • Take time to be gracious with the “invisible” people in your life and see what a difference that makes, both for you and for them;
  • Occasionally indulge yourself as a conscious act of self-love;
  • Treat your life as a precious resource;
  • Always remember that you’re only human, and that’s not a bad thing.

Arthur Wenk holds a doctorate in musicology and masters degrees in information science, music theory, and psychology.

Art‘s client-centered approach is based on empathic listening, helping clients integrate thoughts, feelings and actions, and assisting them to revise self-stories that have kept them enmeshed in problems: all in the interest of achieving mental, emotional and spiritual wholeness.

Art currently practices at Wilson Counselling Associates in Oakville, Ontario.