“I’m doing the best I can”- How I went from hating that phrase to embracing it

November 28, 2022

It’s been a minute since my last blog post; I’m happy to dive back in with a few thoughts that are too wordy for my Instagram or Facebook feeds. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a recovering perfectionist. So it should come as no surprise that the phrase “I’m doing the best I can” was abhorrent to me. I hated it- it reeked of settling, smelled like a lame excuse, and set the bar so low that anyone who believed this deserved pity. If that sounds harsh to you, check and see what your inner critic sounds like when you say the inside part out loud– not very nice, I daresay. If you find comfort in telling yourself that you’re doing the best you can, celebrate that- it’s true! If not, read on. . .

The tide started turning for me thanks to Life. Life happened, sad and bad things happened that were beyond my control, no matter how hard I tried. I kept doing everything I could (including beating myself up, not sleeping, overthinking, and self-doubting), but nothing worked. I strived so hard, something finally broke in me. I experienced a moment of connection to the very idea I had always despised- it was fleeting, but there it was- a definite felt sense that I was doing the best that I could (and I couldn’t do any better than that). It was disorienting, to say the least. Something deep down inside finally had had enough of my inner critic’s abuse and fought back. Yes, all along other people were either pointing out what I had done well or offering kind words and loving support when things went awry; I just hadn’t been offering that to myself (or allowing myself to take their kindnesses to heart).

With this brief but monumental shift in perspective, something else fell into place: the fact that I was human. As I say to my clients/thinking partners, I haven’t yet discovered a work-around for being human. And being human = being imperfect. Making mistakes. Bearing witness to so much sadness and so much joy. What exactly is the point in fighting reality? Such wasted energy, when our energy is sorely needed to help others, to heal ourselves and the world around us. It was rediscovering this “witness” part of me, or Self, or soul or whatever you want to call it, that allowed me the grace to relax into my own humanity. Being middle-aged certainly helps with that, although it’s not a given that added years = subtracted suffering. That takes intentional effort (and can happen even when you’re younger). For that’s what fighting against our humanness is- suffering. “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”- that’s another phrase (attributed to various wise humans) that speaks the truth. Learning how to strip suffering from living is a skill best learned in community, in partnership- that’s where true healing takes place. Acknowledging our humanity isn’t about settling, it’s about creating- new possibilities, renewed energy, sacred potential. If your mind is rebelling at the thought, check in with your body- what do these words feel like to you?

One tentative step further along this path leads us out of embracing our flaws and into exploring our complexity- the “both/and”-ness of our reality. Dr. Marsha Linehan created Dialectical Behavior Therapy using her own experiences with mental illness and various treatment modalities; one of the tenets of DBT is the ability to hold seemingly opposing thoughts together at the same time. “I’m doing the best I can- and I can do better.” In the beforetimes, I couldn’t swallow that pill without a heaping dose of self-judgment. . . If I can do better, then I can’t possibly be doing the best I can– or can I?? Doesn’t the latter extinguish the former? Admittedly it’s a bit of a mind fuck at first; I encourage you to check in with your body and see what sensations show up. Also, remember that our minds are awe-inspiring in their complexity- so why not hold two opposing thoughts as true at the same time? Can you find a part of yourself that knows that, at any given moment, you’re doing the best you can? And is there another part (or maybe it’s the same one) that knows you could do better– WITHOUT JUDGMENT?? Just curiosity? Hmmm. Fascinating.

Let me admit that typing this- or any other blog post- nudges my perfectionist part and sets it humming, just a little bit. So, I’m being intentional and giving that part a gentle hug while forging ahead. . . . It does actually feel good giving myself a break, knowing that “I’m doing the best I can” and really believing that that’s good enough. As we’re heading into December and the holiday/end of year rush, wouldn’t it feel good to believe that for yourself? I believe it for you- so you don’t have to do this alone. I’ve got you.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

December 13, 2020

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named, ummm. . . . let’s call her Farah. Farah grew up in a happy home surrounded by love, but she just knew something wasn’t right- with her. She tried to keep this “not right” feeling locked up in a little box, and the key to that box was perfection. The more perfect Farah could be, the tighter the lock would get. Farah became an expert at meeting other people’s expectations of her (or rather, she became an expert at meeting what she thought others expected of her). She didn’t get lost in the Big Woods; she knew how to read signs, and she never veered off the path.

Slowly over time, and then seemingly all at once, questions started popping up. People- professors, new friends, even Farah herself- started asking things like, “What do you want to do?” and “How do you feel about that?” and that’s when Farah realized that she didn’t have all the answers. She spent so much time and energy listening outside of herself that she lost her ability to hear her voice within. She didn’t really know who she was or what she wanted. And she couldn’t really remember how to ask for help. On top of that, bad things kept happening regardless of how perfectly locked up her “not right” feelings were. To make up for the silence inside, Farah told herself a new story; this one was called the “Not Good Enough” story. It was extremely portable and suited any number of situations- from “Not Smart Enough” to “Not Attractive Enough” and even into “I Don’t Deserve it” territory.

Farah’s new story, and the memories of her old stories, kept her from truly enjoying her “Happily Ever After” when it came along (the handsome prince, a “castle” on a cul de sac, and beautiful children of her own). It wasn’t a Big, Bad Wolf or an Evil Queen- it was the tale itself that got in her way. And it wasn’t the needle on a spinning wheel, or even a deeply restorative sleep that brought Farah to her senses- it was Life. Big, Messy, Life. Where Bad Things Happen. . . and then what?? What happens after the “Happily (or Not So Happily) Ever”?

However, whenever Life brings you here- a loss (or a gain), a time of transition, a feeling of uncertainty about what comes next- you can start by asking yourself, “What is my story?” What is it that you keep telling yourself about yourself? Coax it to come out by acknowledging that whatever the story is, it existed to keep you safe (it’s gotten you this far, hasn’t it?), and it most likely was created when you were younger and simply learning to make sense of the world around you. Aim for awareness and understanding– gratitude and compassion can come later.

Next, ask yourself, “What am I getting out of the story that I am holding on to so closely? Take three deep breaths and see if you can listen to your “voice within” and not just to all the thoughts racing in your mind. This isn’t an easy question to figure out- our defenses, our ego, will be kicking into overdrive to protect us and “keep us safe.” Even when that “safety” is really just a comfortable, familiar way of suffering. . . Why be vulnerable and truly see how little control we have over, well, pretty much EVERYTHING, when we can just stay here all nice and cozy with the self-doubt and self-sabotage we’re so very good at inflicting on ourselves?

Whatever shows up as your answer- sit with it. It’s going to reveal something about your thoughts and beliefs that will probably have some strong emotions attached to it. Aye, there’s the rub- our emotions that we try so hard to avoid, repress, lessen, will resist all our attempts to assert control. In the end, letting go of control and allowing those strong feelings to exist is the only way to move forward. Don’t add suffering to your pain; allow yourself to feel the pain. The only way through it is through it. Know that you are not alone. Our common humanity binds us together on this journey.

Now, instead of just sitting with whatever shows up, ask yourself, “What do I need?” Can you move with your feelings? Rock back and forth, hug yourself, take a walk, kick or punch pillows, shake it off- embody your emotions and use the wisdom of your physical body to release all that energy you spent trying to cover up the fact that you are human and have feelings (and that not being in control is scary). Feel like shouting or crying, screaming or laughing? Go for it.

This is an awful lot to process and experience. If you need to take a break, or a nap, give yourself permission to do so. Call a friend, one who will listen without judgment and without giving advice. There’s freedom waiting in this new place, with this new clarity- freedom to choose a different story. You can feel exposed and vulnerable and powerful and hopeful, all at the same time. Over and over again. Why not choose a story for yourself of love and hope and forgiveness? Of strength and courage and even happiness?

A New Year is coming. Time for a new story. Choose freedom from your old story and find the joy of living fully as your flawed and beautiful, beautiful self.

Peace, love, and hope to you all-

Your Least Happy Child and You

October 24, 2019

I’m going to stir the pot, break some eggs, bring some heat– and I’m not even in the kitchen. Right now, in fact, I’m lying with my feet up, typing on my new rose gold-colored MacBook Air, feeling pretty comfortable. Earlier today, I enjoyed a Starbucks caramel macchiato (with 2% milk, not even nonfat!), and I spent a couple of hours at the hair salon getting my hair dyed its newish deep red color. This evening, I had a glass of rosé before eating Chinese food with Cameron and watching and reminiscing over the original “Clash of the Titans” movie. Not a bad day at all. In fact, a happy one.

What was my “least happy child” doing? Well, one of them is stressed out over some really tough college exams, and the other is in a residential treatment center far away from home. Let’s go with the latter one. . . . chances are there are no lattes or laptops available there.

I imagine you are on to me by now. . . . I’d like to talk about the well-worn adage “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” My guess is most of you have an immediate reaction to hearing this phrase, and you instinctively agree with it. So, taking a look at how I spent my day today, either I’m a terrible, insensitive mother, or there’s something wrong with this tired-out trope.

I’m sure most of you who know me would quickly offer me an exception, knowing the challenges our whole family has endured. But would you offer an exception for yourselves? If your family story hews a little more closely to the norm than ours does, would you grant yourself a pause to really examine the sentiment behind this commonly offered consolation?

Why is this phrase offered to those of us who have children struggling? Do people actually think this is comforting? I understand the impulse to validate our own sadness and stress– isn’t that what good friends do?– but what, really, are you saying to us? It’s okay to be sad when our kids are sad– but then is it not okay to be happy when our kid isn’t? If whatever is making our kid sad is something that isn’t easily fixed– or can’t be fixed or solved at all– what, then, should we as parents do? Trust me, we spend an awful lot of time as it is walking around in a daze, especially at the beginning of the journey, acting as close to fine on the outside as we can, all the while falling apart on the inside. But how is this Herculean effort sustainable? Do we really expect a parent to be permanently unhappy because their child struggles? And what exactly would this look like? Who gets to decide?

And what does this say to the child who is unhappy? Granted, many teenagers would think it’s pretty cool to have so much power over the adults in their lives– but not for long. This kind of control over the ones who are supposed to be in charge inevitably causes anxiety and fear– if I’m responsible for my parents’ happiness, what about my own? What if my parents are mad or disappointed or down? Is that my fault? What should I do?

Please don’t surrender the burden of responsibility for your emotional health to your children. That will leave an imprint on them that will stay with them for life, until and unless they finally realize that this is something beyond their control and seek help undoing the damage.

If I want my children to find their inner strength and be resilient in the face of challenges, I have to show them how to do that. How to develop healthy attachments to the ones we bring into our lives, where our happiness and our power come from within– we don’t give them away for others to control. It’s not just happiness we are talking about– that is a fleeting and unreliable source of strength. What we are really talking about is peace. Balance. Centeredness. A deep understanding of what we can control, and what we can’t.

Least happy or not, I am determined to teach both my children that my happiness doesn’t depend on their happiness– and vice-versa. My choices about my emotions are my responsibility. I still feel their pain more deeply than my own– watching your children suffer is the worst torment on Earth for parents– and yet my tears, my sadness, my laughter, are all my own.

If you’ve offered this phrase to parents whose children are struggling, please forgive yourselves. Life is hard, we make mistakes, and we learn. Self-compassion and the ability to forgive are also huge skills to model for our kids.

I am not the exception that proves the rule. This rule needs to be broken.