Trying Too Hard: A Control Issue

“Lean in.” “Just do it.” “Man up.” All are admonitions to impose our will upon a presenting situation. Some are more explicitly masculine in tone, but all borrow from the typically masculine side of our life as a species. Each can also be adaptive, productive, and appropriate in certain situations, at least by way of intention, even if suffering from an overly testosterone-infused edge: the fight vs flight response. 

Imposing our will might also be described as determination, an attitude and orientation that narrows our focus in the service of intensifying goal-directed action. Beyond the legitimate emergent moments when fight-flight action is warranted, a pause for dialectical consideration of our felt urgency versus the true nature of threat or risk will assure a more intelligent and reasonable course of action.

But what happens as a rapid pace of life and growing levels of stress, strain, and exhaustion exact their price? We lose our mental capacity for mindful self and situation awareness. We tend to operate on autopilot. And if we are achievement-oriented to begin with, fears of failure, an amplified sense of risk, and cognitive distortion cripple our capacities for noticing our losses in perspective and proportionality. 

That’s why self-care is so vital. Whether we invoke Stephen Covey’s notion of “sharpening the saw,” or the “renewal cycle” of Boyatzis & McKee (Resonant Leadership), the ethic of self-care that restores our capacity to be fully human is what I’m talking about here. A vigorous work ethic, so laudable and so much reinforced by management, on the other hand, can undermine self-care with trying too hard

Trying Too Hard

This is an indiscriminate mandate to always and everywhere work until exhausted, to aim just a little bit higher to ensure we don’t fall below (a standard) or behind (in comparison to others). I see the “fruits” of this behavior in my practice all too often. In its most tyrannical form, this off-the-rails norm leads people to work until it hurts, literally. Pain is the only feedback they trust to ensure they’ve done enough. 

That pain could be physical, mental, or emotional – often it’s a combination of all three. But it also becomes the pain of others, those we love, those with whom we work. “What’s wrong, you used to really like your work?” And in response, the primary victim of this syndrome (because there are usually several secondary victims) will adamantly insist that he/she has not choice, the suffering is necessary.  

Wrong, it’s not. And even the briefest moment of reflective distance from the “tyranny of the urgent” (Covey’s lovely phrase), will reveal the extreme irrationality and emotional dysregulation that has overcome us. Pedal to the floor and no brakes, that’s what this mode of “functioning” is like. And the truth is that our current systems of work are not very helpful in countering this vulnerability. 

So, it’s up to you. If you are young - for me, that’s anyone under 40 years old - you’ve got your entire future at stake. Do you really want to live of life of volleying between frantic overwork and acute self-repair? The price may be career success, but even more importantly, it may entail lost opportunities for love, happiness, friendship, and meaning. 

It’s About Control

There are things in life that we can control, and there are other forces and circumstances in life that are beyond our control. What we can control is what we care about and making choices about how we want to prioritize what we care about. We can control our level of self-care, everything from how we care for our physical self to the way we feed our soul and mind, and how we make room for love in our life. 

Rather little of how we fare with these priorities will be affected in any positive way by whether we are a CEO of a company or a billionaire. Material needs will require that we find a livelihood or career that provides an income. Being part of a community, family, and network of colleagues will require that we reciprocate acts of helping and care, even causing us to sometimes go above and beyond. 

Establishing a career, expert knowledge, and skills will require that we muster sufficient self-discipline and determination. We will need to cope with disappointment, illness, and suffering in life too. We are mortal, so these are part of what it means to be persons. But if we begin ceding ground to material trappings, compensatory needs for status, title, and power, we sacrifice our freedom for happiness. 

So, who is in charge? Is it you or your obsessions? Who is appraising your situation and your freedom to live the life you want? Is it you or is that exhausted version of our life form that has sacrificed all to seek the ephemeral affirmations that bloat our pride while leaving us empty?