04 May 2016

A for Effort

Two dear friends of mine are teachers. One teaches 6th grade, and the other teaches kindergarten to 3rd grade. I laugh to tears at the stories they tell me about how unleashed these young children are. From their desire to create and destroy, to their unfiltered reactions and amazing ability to bounce back, children are truly inspiring. The stories my friends share about their students remind me of how important it is to cultivate play and apply their free-spirited approach as an adult as much as possible.

I find children invigorating, as they have the purest of hearts and see the world through such fresh eyes, hungry for exploration and discovery. They can spend hours building Lego sets, turn just about anything into a fort, make up new games on the fly, and see their backyard as a playground with endless potential. They have an incredible reserve of energy, raring to roll around in the grass, play tag, and climb the un-climbable. They speak their Truth without hesitation, and offer unfiltered feedback and questions without fear of judgment. The see others through the purest of perspectives and dig anyone who will join them in their adventures. It's beautiful, and I so enjoy the insights and stories that my friends share about them.

But in the stories of silly recess happenings and classroom shenanigans, there is also mention of progress reports and grading rubrics. Through the students' laughs, light bulb moments, and magnetic energy, I also recognize that performance culture is already settling in, even at the elementary school level. As early as 8 years old, striving for excellence becomes a very important goal. The promised rewards of gold stars, special privileges, and teacher's praise coerce children to readjust their focus from play and creativity, to work and measurable results.

It makes my heart ache when my educator friends tell me about their students' fear of failure or rejection. A little girl crying when she accidentally rips her art project, wailing, "It's ruined!!!" A boy isolating himself when he isn't the fastest runner in P.E. class, in a state of "why even try if you aren't the best?"

How can it be that their bright-eyed perspective and natural desires to build, move, express, and connect with their environment are squashed at such a young age?

In those tough tween years, the painful process of individuation begins, through which children start to unconsciously consider questions like, "who am I?" "what do I have to do to be likable and accepted?" and "what makes me valuable?" Worldly influences start to creep into their awareness, whispering false promises of love and acceptance, and rob them of their invincible, care-free wonder.

One of the biggest culprits of siphoning their spirit is the pressure to perform. During a time in their lives when they are absorbing so much new information and exploring what brings them joy, children have parents, teachers, and coaches pressuring them to abruptly transition to being a responsible, high-performing, nervous, insecure grown-up.

I can recall several childhood memories off the top of my head, wherein my tendency to be free, giggly, and creative was squelched by the pressure to act in accordance with someone's expectations, achieve a high grade, play by the rules, or measure up to someone else. As an adult, I explored these memories in hypnotherapy sessions. When working through a negative, self-limiting belief in my session, it was important to start with the first time I remembered feeling that way in order to uproot it. And it was always in those young, formative years when my regressions would start.

It's not difficult to trace the line from our performance-oriented foundation in school, at home, and on the field to the resultant stress-induced adult life we live out today at home and at work. We become so naturally addicted to outcome, because an unfathomable amount of attention has been given to it our entire lives. No wonder we have a hard time 'enjoying the journey.' Our value as individuals is equated to how much we push ourselves, our final mark, and how it compares to others. The pressure to perform teaches us to detach from our internal compass and to measure how much we should love ourselves against some rubric tracking grades, job title, marital status, body type...and the list goes on.

One of the intentions I set this year is to let go of my report card mentality. Over the past few months, I have been reminded of just how deeply this performance pressure is rooted. I'm my own worst critic, and I see how my focus on outcome can result in missing the whole, juicy process in between. So often, I tunnel-vision on the finish line, such that I ultimately don't feel satisfied when I reach the checkered tape, as I'm always adding another lap in form of some new challenge or goal. It's the idea of 'never enough' that keeps us in a sprint, out of breath on the treadmill to nowhere (or, rather, to some projected idea of the future). 

Hey, being driven is great. Dreaming up goals and setting intentions for growth and development is invigorating and part of living an inspired life. It is when we are so harshly judging ourselves every step of the way and honing in on some preconceived idea of what the final outcome should look like, that we're totally not present or open to a new (potentially better) ending. When you set out on a journey to achieve something, you know what you know in that moment. As you chip away and progress forward, new possibilities and ideas will start to reveal themselves to you, both within you and in the physical world. Perhaps a new door opens up, or a gem of wisdom presents itself. But if we have our blinders on as we approach the finish line, some hazy idea of where we are going, we risk missing those divine guideposts and gifts.

Sometimes it's the pressure to know, without a doubt, what I want that paralyzes me from action and invites in self-doubt. I'm a visual learner, so often I start collecting magazine clippings or get whisked away on Pinterest when I need help crystallizing an idea or intention. Earlier this year, I was vision-boarding with a friend - something I really enjoy doing. The practice of flipping through a catalog of dreamy potential, and repeating to myself that I can call in anything I want, relaxes me to the point of allowing that creative energy to buzz through me and spark inspiration. It reminds me that my dreams and goals are more tangible that I thought, and looking at the images starts to plant the seed of what it feels and looks like to integrate that goal. 

However, on this evening of vision-boarding, I was being particularly hard on myself. With all of my intentions written out in my journal, I had shown up so excited to create a visual representation and keep my goals at the forefront of my consciousness. But, as I started to collect words and images for my board, nothing was coming out right. The design looked childish. My clippings weren't fitting on the board and the arrangement was off. My personal touches of markers and stickers cheapened the richness of my intentions. I felt frustrated and discouraged. That wasn't what I wanted my board to look like at all! I felt stuck between the mental pictures I had drawn and my physical ability to bring those untouchable dreams to life. I kept looking over at my friend's board (she's an incredibly talented artist who has a natural knack for creating lighthearted art and designing cozy spaces), and I started to spiral into a ridiculous state of self-judgment. Talk about report card mentality! This craft of vision-boarding, which was meant to be fun, light, and inspiring, quickly morphed into a way for me to judge myself even more harshly. Totally disconnected from the original intention of the board and the goals I had once so happily drawn up, I ended the night feeling exhausted and like I wanted to trash my board. 

The next morning, I awoke to my board propped up on my photo altar, and I was able to laugh off the battle I had instigated with it the night before. I looked at it fondly as something I created with the purest of intentions over a much-anticipated night connecting with my girl friend. But in those moments of stagnated creativity and frustration,  I felt so defeated. That alluring desire for perfection, planted when I was a little girl, continues to crop up as an adult and threaten to rob me of the sweet nectar of curiosity, creativity, and unconditional enjoyment without attachment to outcome.

Spoiler alert: perfection is an illusion, and pursuing it is exhausting and uninspiring. If you're addicted like me, give it up. Consider what life would be like if instead of focusing on achievement and accolades, we fell in love with the process, nurtured our curiosity, and celebrated the baby steps. What if we were graded on our effort and the intention that we breathe into our goals, instead of on the ultimate outcome? What if we were rewarded with love, respect and recognition, purely for the heart-energy we dedicate to projects and goals? I can only image how that would change the way we show up to the drawing board, excited for the potential and fearless to follow it where it may lead. 

It's interesting to me that the phrase 'A for effort' is offered with pity, like a bastardized congratulations. The effort and intention are treated as secondary to some shiny proof of results. In my heart, I believe that the only measures of growth and performance that merit any kind of attention are one's degree of self-trust and open-heartedness, the focused energy behind the intention, and one's love of the unpredictable journey. The outcome is whatever. We must shed the many layers of our childhood-born self-judgment and pressure to perform before we can authentically adopt the belief that our efforts and intention are good enough. In fact, it's when we detach from outcome and instead breathe life into the infinite possibilities that we begin living a truly magical, magnetic, and inspired life. You'll be amazed by what shows up when you trust yourself enough to follow your intuition and honor your passions, instead of ball-and-chain yourself to an idea of what your life should be. 

Something that helps me disengage from my attachment to outcome is doing a little self-acknowledgement activity at the end of the day. When I'm lying in bed, exhaling the day, my report card mentality will often pipe up with a laundry list of things that didn't get done or some ego-based measurement of how well I performed that day. I like to nip this mind chatter in the bud by turning to my journal and capturing five things I am proud of myself for. These things can range from standing up for myself or sending love to myself in the mirror at yoga, to finishing a task that was hanging over my head or choosing compassion for someone over judgment. It immediately puts me in a state of gratitude and self-appreciation, instead of sizing up my progress on a myriad of responsibilities and goals.

I hope that we can all hold each other to this higher frequency - buzzing with curiosity, gratitude, and love for adventure, like when we were children. Lower frequency thoughts around comparison, judgment, and expectations will dissipate when we choose to let our current state and our beautiful intentions be enough.  


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