In this episode of Psychologists Off the Clock, Dr Diana Hill and Dr Yael Schonbrun discuss striving, how unhealthy striving hurts us in the long term and how you can strive for your goals without running yourself into the ground.
While people are working more, causing a “dramatic spike in productivity”, this is “unsustainable in the long term”, says ADP chief economist Nela Richardson, cited by Forbes.
But this is not a trend unique to the current pandemic era. In 2014, The New Yorker called this “the cult of overwork”, where overworking has become a “credential of prosperity”, perpetuating the idea that we are only successful when we are pulling longer hours and achieving more than we did the day before. In 2019, the World Health Organization formally recognised burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” which results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.
“Overwork culture is thriving; we think of long hours and constant exhaustion as a marker of success,” says Bryan Lufkin in his article for the BBC. In short, exhaustion has become a status symbol.
This culture of overwork leading to burnout is caused by striving, say Hill and Schonbrun. “When we’re in unhealthy striving, we’re battling against ourselves and we’re battling against the present moment. But when we’re in healthy striving, we’re battling for what we care about and that’s different,” explains Hill.
What is striving?
According to the Psychologists Off the Clock website, it is that push to “simultaneously be the perfect employee, parent, partner”. This does not mean that having goals or desires are negative, far from it, but there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy striving, with the latter often leaving us “feeling exhausted and chronically burnt out”, the website explains.
So how do we know if we are striving in a healthy way or not? Hill has a list, and the criteria are not so much about what we do, but rather how we feel when we are working towards our goals. “All of those things can lead to feeling dissatisfied in your life – doing a lot, but not really feeling a sense of contentment,” she explains.
The signs of unhealthy striving include never feeling like you have done enough, regardless of how many tasks you tick off, feeling guilty for taking time off and resting and when you do succeed, feeling like that still is not enough, Hill explains.
In contrast, positive striving cultivates “feelings of contentedness and wholeness”, where there is value in the processes of life, and not just in the outcomes, Hill says. “Pausing to take in the view, being present and working hard balancing effort and surrender”.
Practically, this involves first evaluating what you are striving for, and setting goals that are “based on your values” and that prioritise what is actually important to you, Hill says. Once that is clear in your mind, Hill explains that you can then set boundaries, allow yourself to rest and practice self-care – “choosing cooperation over competition”. And it is not easy, it requires intentionality and actively “stepping into a remembering of what matters to you”, “pursuing what matters to you through actions and letting go of outcomes”. It involves “small moves towards something that you know is right for you. And for me, it’s been a whole lifetime of that”. But it is worth it.
Letting go of unhealthy striving, Schonbrun clarifies, does not mean that “you’re not shooting for big goals” or not “trying to make important contributions and push yourself”, but rather, learning how to strive better. Schonbrun also references happiness psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, saying that part of healthy striving involves moving from “perfectionism to a mindset of good enough… Good enough really is good enough”. And even though “our brains aren’t actually wired to buy that, it’s useful to just recognise that we can realign with the value of setting more healthy striving goals”.
At the end of the episode, Hill and Schonbrun invite you to take part in a practical exercise, guiding you through steps that you can do at home to identify and let go of unhealthy striving. To learn more about this topic, the Psychologists Off the Clock website also has resources for further research. DM/ML
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