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How Do You Know When What You've Done Is Good Enough?

Striving is good, but sometimes it can be too much. How do you know?

Key points

  • Striving to be perfect, rather than good enough, can interfere with our ability to enjoy any experience.
  • Happy faces on social media may hide unhappy realities.
  • Striving can become a habit.

Ephraim* is working on his Ph.D. He has done what sounds to me like huge amounts of research, but he says he needs to do more. But his advisor has just told him that it’s time to stop researching and start writing. “How can I do that?” Ephraim wanted to know. “I feel like I don’t have good enough data yet!”

Edie* has two small children and a third on the way. “I try so hard to be a good mom,” she told me. “But there are so many things I do wrong. I let my kids have way too much screen time, I don’t give them each enough individual time, and I certainly haven’t done a great job with their eating habits. I see all these great Instagram posts from other moms who are doing everything right, and I feel so terrible. And with a third one on the way… I feel like such a bad mom.”

How do you know when you’ve worked out enough, eaten enough, drunk enough, or slept enough? How do you know when your house is clean enough, you’ve done enough work, or you’ve spent enough time on a project? How do you know if you’re being a good enough mother?

Many years ago, a British psychoanalyst wrote that “good enough” mothering is better than “perfect” mothering. He explained that if everything was perfect in a child’s life, the child might never be motivated to grow. But we now know that striving to be a perfect parent can interfere with our ability to pay attention to or even simply enjoy being with our children.

In fact, striving to be perfect, rather than good enough, can interfere with our ability to enjoy any experience. What does this mean? Simply that if you’re focused on doing something perfectly, it’s almost impossible to appreciate and pay attention to what you’re doing enough to know whether or not you’re enjoying doing it.

But how do you know if what you’re doing is “good enough”?

We live in a world where appearance sometimes seems to be more important than experience. In other words, an Instagram shot of a mom having fun with her kids doesn’t tell us if she had to yell at them to stand still or act happy so that she could get the perfect shot. A really hot body, fancy house, or perfectly clothed child doesn’t tell us if a person is happy, content, or secretly miserable. But we often get caught up thinking we would be happy if we only had that external representation of success or happiness. Paying attention to proprioception can help you recognize the difference between what you are experiencing and what you think you should be experiencing.

Perfectionism, fear of missing out, anxiety, and social pressure are just some of the ways our thoughts can make it hard to know when something is good enough. But the people I know who are most content seem to manage to work hard, enjoy their successes, and find time to appreciate what they’re doing while they’re doing it.

Here are three simple techniques to help you decipher when it’s time to stop eating or drinking or working on a project, or when you might want to keep working on something a little longer, run a little further, or try a little harder.

1. Talk to another person about your dilemma.

A professional who can be neutral is often helpful, but a friend or a relative or a colleague can help you start to know some of the things that are contained in your emotional world, but out of your awareness. Ephraim, for instance, enlisted the help of both a friend and his advisor to help him recognize whether or not he needed to keep working on his thesis. “They both listened to my concerns,” he told me. “And they came from two different directions." His advisor told him, “Every doctoral student feels that way. But at some point, they need to stop. And you’re at that point.” His friend helped him think about the possibility that he was avoiding starting to write, not because he had more research to do, but because he was nervous about starting the writing.

2. Pay attention to your muscles.

This may sound like an odd suggestion, but your muscles are one of the places where your proprioception begins, and they can let you know if you are trying to hold something back from your awareness. Tension in your body can signal that one or more emotion is interfering with your ability to know what you want to do. A client with an eating disorder, for example, discovered that when he paid attention to his muscles, rather than his rules about eating, he ate more healthily. “I think my brain often overrides what my muscles are telling me. I listen to the rules about how much food is too much or too little, so I don’t listen to my body, and that’s what gets me in trouble.”

3. Recognize that some striving is normal, but overstriving may be a bad habit.

Trying to be super fit or super thin, wanting to make an impression on your boss, or even to make more money than you need, can become a habit that you never think about—you just do it automatically. Changing these habits is never easy, but recognizing that you are doing something automatically, without thought, is a first step to change. Once you stop simply “doing” and start thinking about what you’re doing, you may find yourself making some spontaneous changes.

When Edie started to think about her automatic reaction to her children being on their screens, she said, “I just have a knee-jerk reaction that says it’s bad. But I realized that sometimes we’re all exhausted and need time to recuperate. I started to forgive myself for it—even to see that it might be a healthy way to be in the same place without having to interact with each other. And strangely enough, as I relaxed about it, somehow the amount of time they spent on their screens slowly started to lessen.”

I asked her how she understood that shift. She said, “I think that when I relaxed enough to think about it, we all got a little space—a little rest and relaxation. And then we could jump back into life.”

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

Copyright @fdbarth2022.

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