Death To Anxious Striving

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Sometimes the words “anxious striving” pop out of my mouth, usually when working with someone who’s making a big change in his or her life.

“Anxious striving” is often what’s brought them into coaching in the first place. They’re stressed, they’re out of sorts, and they know something’s got to give.

And it’s so very hard to let go of anxious striving, since many of us were raised at the knee of hereditary anxious strivers who were driven to go-go-go, bigger, better, best.

We’ve learned from parents, peers and bosses that the optimal state of being is in constant motion towards harder and harder work, for which rewards may or may not come (depending on the mindset of whoever you listened to – some of us got a heavy dose of the always inspiring “work is hard and people like us never get a break – deal with it”).

Anxious striving is a mindset where we’re always the horse yoked to a heavy wagon, pursuing the dangling, unreachable carrot at the end of the stick perpetually in front of us.

It’s relentless pursuit of pursuit, for motion’s sake.

And it can be exhausting.

Now could be the moment where I wax rhapsodic about the joys of simply being. Of chasing butterflies in fields. Of wearing linen in a softly-focused life of repose.

But… nah.

The majority of us live here in the real world where we have meetings, and mortgages, and people who rely on us in one way or the other.

Plus, there’s a lot of meaning in work. I actually love working. The satisfaction that comes from doing a job that’s important to you, and doing it well, and hearing from someone that the work you performed really mattered – there is nothing like that in the world.

But anxious striving swamps meaning’s boat. So we have to find ways to eliminate it so we can be fully immersed in the Big Reason Why we’re doing what we do.

Here’s a good way to start. At the outset of anything you need to do, just ask yourself something my friend, the writer Jen Louden, suggests: “What are the conditions of enoughness?”

I love this question. And let me give you a simple example of how it might work. Let’s say I’m playing golf in a foursome, and let’s just say some money has been put down in a few side bets, raising the competitive stakes a bit. You with me?

Now, the competitive part of my noggin could start with anxious striving with messages like, “Michele, you’ve got to beat them! Twenty whole dollars are on the line! Par every hole, girl. You’ve got to par every hole.”

Hold your horses, there, kid. Did you know that the average amateur golfer shoots thirty over par on every round of golf? That’s at least one stroke over par on each hole. But me – anxious golf striver – have just said that my goal for today is to play at the level of a pro golfer, with no practice, training or skill.

I’m really something, ain’t I?

If at the outset, I’d considered the “conditions of enoughness” around the match, I might have done something quite different. I might have looked at the scorecard in advance and made my own par. It would be enough to have four strokes on that par three hole surrounded by water. Maybe I will realistically get a double-bogey on that long par five. Those new goals become my new par, and if I finish the round close to the new score I chose to shoot for, I will have done enough.

But more important, my energy would be calm, balanced and engaged rather than anxious, worried and graspy. Golf would be fun.

And the really crazy thing I’ve found in my own life is that by serving my own conditions of enoughness, I often create such a balanced and happy feeling of accomplishment that I do even better than I thought I would when I started.

Anxious striving drives so many of us, with powerful and problematic consequences – like workaholism, stress, disconnection from joy and meaning, and loss of self. Let’s put it out of its misery once and for all, and embrace instead the idea that we alone can decide what’s enough for ourselves, and getting to enough is… enough.

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