For many living in the fast paced and sometimes even competitive Northern Virginia area, can often feel like no matter how hard you work that it is never enough. This ranges from the teenager who studies hours for their final quarter exam with the hope of earning an “A,” to the mother who balances her career with caring for her family, to the father who works late because the work has to get done, and even to the toddler trying to build the tallest Lego Duplo tower ever. I have noticed that I often say to my clients, “as long as you try that is all that matters,” only to be told all the reasons why “trying is not enough” or stating, “I have to get an ‘A’ or my grade will drop which will lower my GPA and then I won’t get into my preferred college” or “If I don’t immediately start getting dinner ready when I get home, then the kids will not be fed before practice, and then they’ll be cranky, and then the whole night will go downhill” or “If I don’t put in the hours, then I won’t get the promotion, which will mean that I don’t get the raise that we need to help pay for the kids’ tuition,” or “If I don’t build the tallest tower, then I’m not a master builder.”
The common theme here is that everyone is trying so hard to achieve their goals, whatever they may be, but they often forget that trying is enough. Yes, let me repeat that just trying is enough. It is so easy to get caught up in the “perfection” cycle that we end up not giving ourselves and even our loved ones the credit we deserve for hanging in there and simply trying our best. When report cards come in, my focus tends to be more on the effort grade than the actual academic achievement grade. As long as someone is trying that is what truly matters because at the end of the day we all have areas of strength and weakness. Additionally, we can get so focused on the end result that we forget that there are multiple variables that impact our lives and that even though our plan seems foolproof and we perceive the immediate goal as essential to that plan, life still happens and our control over the future is limited to how we choose to act and react in the moment.
It is important to recognize that our level of effort fluctuates and is not constant. There are some days when one wakes up is able to get a couple of loads of laundry done, pays bills while getting breakfast made and gets the kids ready for school. Other days, getting everyone out the door with a granola bar before the bus leaves is a miracle. Reminding ourselves that life happens and can impact our energy levels and effort reserves can lead to giving ourselves and our loved ones slack when efforts seem lower than usual. Lack of sleep, too much stress, and feeling overwhelmed can have a negative impact on one’s ability to concentrate, initiate tasks, complete tasks, and motivation. If you find your own motivation and effort level lower than usual, it is important to ask yourself what may be contributing to your lack of energy, is there something you can do to help cope with the contributing factor(s), and honestly evaluate whether you are truly doing the best you can given the situation. If you notice a loved one’s motivation and effort level are lower than usual, the first approach should be to openly discuss your observation in a nonjudgmental manner with an emphasis on your concern about your loved one and the recognition that something may be contributing to their lack of energy and effort.
Finding a balance with respect to understanding, accommodating, and supporting each others’ areas of difficulty may be challenging. On the one hand it is important to provide ourselves and our loved ones support and accommodations that alleviate some of the stress that may be contributing to lower levels of effort, while on the other hand it is important to encourage ourselves and loved ones to keep up effort and achieve to our highest potential. Being flexible and maintaining honest, yet tactful communication is essential to discovering when it is appropriate to cut ourselves and loved ones some slack and when it is appropriate to encourage higher standards than are currently being met. The key is to remind ourselves and our loved ones that trying, truly trying, is enough and that the journey is often more important and enlightening than reaching the desired destination.
Mary Kathleen Hill, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist