Do you find yourself pushing forward to get somewhere or achieve something only to get there and that feeling of satisfaction proves elusive?
It was pointed out to me recently, by my own coach, that I have what is known as ‘unrelenting standards’. Now you might think, as I initially did, that this was a thinly veiled compliment, but when I sat with it, I began to concede that this should, more accurately, be described as a flaw.
I expect a lot from myself, I know this to be true. As a result, I have a propensity to push myself to achieve as much as is possible, which I believe, in itself, is a good thing. I’m motivated and energised by always trying to do better and be better. Again, nothing harmful in any of that.
But this starts to become a problem when I achieve what I set out to, but then don’t allow myself the time to celebrate, or even recognise, just what I’ve done. My tendency is simply to think “right, that’s done, now what’s next, what needs my attention?” That’s my unrelenting standards at play, right there!
I have, of course, always been like this but it really hit home some months ago when I achieved what I knew to be a childhood dream.
Like many others, I have long believed there was a book inside me, I knew this definitely wasn’t unique, but I also knew that there was a book that really needed to be written just so that others could read it. A book that I felt sure would help others to become unstuck, a book I wish I’d had access to when I myself was struggling with trying to figure out what I needed to do next in my life.
However, there’s an enormous difference between thinking about, wishing for and dreaming of something to happen and then actually, physically doing it. I was about to discover that this was especially true when it relates to writing a book. It took me two painful attempts but eventually, late last year, I sat with the finished manuscript in front of me.
Not long after the next crucial step, the search for a publisher, began in earnest and long story short, earlier this year, I signed my first publishing deal. I was overjoyed. You would assume that you would be able to hear the whooping and hollering to celebrate this occasion from foreign lands. You would assume, but you would be wrong.
Instead, I found myself diverting almost immediately into worrying about the next phase, the editing and to compound this I started to stress about the theme for my second book. What would I write? Would it be as good as the first? Would I be able to deliver again?
And you see, that’s when I realised that’s just what I do. That’s when it was pointed out to me that I have this in-built pre-disposition to never allow myself to feel like I have arrived but that I am constantly on the road to somewhere. To engage a sporting analogy, I run up and down the pitch, shifting the goalposts ever so slightly each time I score a goal. And you know what? It’s incredibly exhausting.
Once I acknowledged it I started to question how long had I been engaging in this form of self-sabotage? Was this a recent thing or was it more deeply engrained? The truth is that it had always been there. I may not have had an abundance of praise as a child, so in order to compensate I felt that it was up to me to prove everyone wrong.
I knew I was smart, bright, funny and creative. I knew I was loving and lovable. I just needed to convince everyone else. Of course, this resulted in years of people-pleasing, years of pushing myself that bit further, but it took me until more recently, to identify that while the intention behind what I was doing could be deemed admirable; the execution was pointless.
No matter how many book deals I secure (and I will secure more!), no matter how many ‘I love yous’ I hear, or how often people praise me or my work; until I fully recognise my own achievements and stop running up and down that pitch, moving those goalposts, I will always be left wanting. That hit home hard.
It can be a little daunting when you realise that external validation leaves you with only a temporary impression. You know that feeling, when you acknowledge your achievement in that moment, it justifies the effort and hard work that you’ve put into it and yet you’re left feeling a little confused as to why it is you still feel empty?
Well, that was me the week after I signed my book deal. I genuinely feel grateful that what I was doing was explained to me, as it has resulted in me going about correcting my behaviour. The first step to all healing is awareness and my being aware of my unrelenting standards is really helping me to curtail them.
So, what did I do? I did what I always do, I wrote. I journaled.
I committed to a daily practice of gratitude. I journaled each morning on the good things I have in my life. Based on the theory that if you focus on the things you have, you will always have enough, I wrote it all down.
Every day, for the last few months, I recorded only the good events, the things I achieved, the impact I am making, the successes I am achieving. It felt so damned awkward at the beginning.
I was glad that nobody else had to hear me brag about what I was doing and achieving; which of course speaks to the heart of the issue here. I have been conditioned to believe that stopping and publicly recognising the good things I am doing in my life, is tantamount to bragging and yet it was the very absence of allowing myself to do this that caused me to chase unrelenting standards.
I recently read this quote, “you can focus on the hole in the doughnut, and you can focus on the doughnut itself”, and it really made me stop and think. In times past, I know I would have fixated on what I could do to fill the hole, to improve it and make it better, but now, before I eat it, I think only about how it is the hole that makes it perfectly imperfect. Now, that’s what I call progress!
Niamh Ennis is Ireland’s leading Transformation Coach and Author. She’s known for her practical solutions to life’s challenges and her ability to tell you not what you want to hear but always what you need. Niamh has just launched THE CHANGE ACCELERATOR her Self-Study Online Programme for those looking to make Changes. Find her on Instagram @1niamhennis or https://www.niamhennis.com/