Lower Your Standards

The end of the summer has a way of throwing many people into a panic. Even the most diligent people have formulated a plan, created a support system & a means of accountability totally dedicated to their goals and yet, you can still feel the summer slipping away. This is the point in the summer when many of us begin to realize that: 1) accomplishing goals can be a very slow process, 2) the “brilliant” ideas we started the summer with may not be quite as brilliant as we originally imagined, 3) we have underestimated the amount of time our summer goals should take to complete, and 4) our summer plans may need to be revised.

The combination of these various factors can leave you feeling frustrated. It seems that the most common demons that underlie resistance are: 1) disempowerment, 2) a hyperactive inner-critic, 3) unclear goals, and 4) fear of success (or a fear of failure).

We’ve experienced at least 1 of these demons this summer in a way that encourages conscious reflection. Now you just need some concrete strategies that you can use to move forward with your goals. This week, we are going to turn our attention to another issue underlying resistance: unrealistically high expectations.

Examining Your Expectations

High expectations are tricky. On one hand, if you’re reading this you’ve already experienced some success and that is likely tied to having high expectations for yourself. On the other hand, when our expectations about who we should be, how we should feel, what we should achieve, and the impact our work should have in the world are too high, unexamined, just straight inappropriate or generated from a desperate need to prove ourselves, they become smothering. I’ve seen should-based high expectations manifest in a variety of ways, including trying to be a “SuperWoman”. These superwomen think that there are so many roles that they must perform perfectly NOW! They want to get stuff done, become a change agent, an inspiring role model, a community activist, and a social intellectual all at the same time. Regrettably, this can make you so busy running around trying to do all of these things that you’re not actually accomplishing much of anything.

Maybe these sound familiar, and I’m sure you could come up with more examples of high expectations run amok. Let’s be clear; I’m not writing this to judge you. Instead, I’m describing these examples because if you suffer from the kind of high expectations that induce paralysis, guilt, shame, or feeling not good enough, smart enough, or dedicated enough, then I want you to consider trying one of the strategies described below. At a minimum, they will provide you with ideas about how to identify immobilizing expectations, release the unhealthy components and respond in a way that gets you back to your goals.

Strategy 1: Rethink Your Career As A Book With Lots Of Chapters

Take some time out of your day (20-30 minutes, tops) to journal about your goals from a long-term perspective. In other words, instead of feeling that you have to do everything all at once, imagine that your goals are literally a book with lots of chapters. Each chapter represents a five-year span of time in which one type of activity is front and center. Imagine that there’s one big goal for each chapter (the title) that serves as the guiding force for your activities. If you’re on the tenure track, chapter one is going to be entitled Research and Writing. The later chapters can focus on becoming a master of whatever it is you do, working as a social intellectual, engaging in activism for social justice, or whatever is important to you. This type of reflection about your goals over the long run often frees you from a sense of having to do everything now and allows you instead to imagine your goals as unfolding over time.

Strategy 2: Develop A Metaphor To Understand Your Process

Unrealistic expectations often emerge from a lack of awareness of the length & depth of our own goal-setting process. You can develop an elaborate metaphor in which each stage of pregnancy (from conception to birth) has a parallel to your goal setting process. Fully developing this metaphor requires an awareness of your own process, the time frame and the desire to understand how your goals unfold over time. The benefit to developing your own metaphor is that it enables you to release yourself from the idea of being perfect because that’s just not possible. Instead, you learn to understand how you move from a new goal to a completed goal so that you can appreciate those ideas when they are in the fragile and unformed early stages, nurture them along, share them regularly with others and watch them grow into completed tasks.

Strategy #3: Create a 0-100% Reviewer List

One of the best ways to keep unrealistically high expectations from paralyzing your time is to share your goals as you work to accomplish them. I realize the people you choose to share your goals with will vary from goal to goal, but the key idea is to avoid holding back until they are almost complete before you request help. Waiting until something is “done” or “perfect” only heightens anxiety and encourages over-investment and over-attachment. Instead, you want to continually share your work with those you trust and ask for feedback that is appropriate to the stage you’re in. Doing so will help you to hold expectations that accurately correspond to the stage of development your goals are in.

Strategy #4: Experiment With Lowering Your Expectations

One thing you might want to try is lowering 1 of your standards every day for a week. The only rule is you can’t lower your standards at work, family, or personal care; but everything else is fair game, including household cleanliness, e-mail responsiveness, etc. It’s amazing what happens when high achievers experiment with intentionally lowering their standards each day. If you regularly operate with uniformly high standards across every area of your life, then lowering your standards and learning how to make conscious decisions about when & where to invest your best time & energy can feel positively liberating! Most of the time nobody even notices, and you will increase the time you have available for the things that really matter to you.

I hope you increase your engagement this week as you work towards you summer goals!


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