Be Gentle With Yourself

After writing a recent draft, a reader reached out to let me know he was inspired by the things I was doing every day as part of keeping up my well-being. The first thing I told him is that, in reality, I’m only trying to do those things, and it’s easier some times than others.

I’d be the first to tell you I don’t do all of the things in that draft every single day. I’m not perfect, nor do I try to be. While I do make an effort to do those things most of the time—because anything done toward that end is better than nothing—it doesn’t work out all of the time, for a variety of reasons.

For instance, at the onset of pandemic a few months ago, I let go of my housekeeping and began doing all of the house chores myself for a while. This meant I needed to use my time carefully, leaving enough time for both work and renewal. While I couldn’t afford to get lazy or waste any time, it also meant I wasn’t doing everything I could to maintain my well-being, and even if I was, it wasn’t all that consistent—and that’s okay! I accepted my situation for what it was and made the most of it.

As someone who is largely purpose-driven and intentional with how I spend my time, there are times when I need to give myself a break—to cut myself some slack, if you will.

For instance, I might occasionally stop working in the A.M. because I am feeling a bit unwell due to a headache, or I am simply not “feelin’ it” no matter how hard I try. Some days, I may have been binge-watching YouTube videos late into the night before, or eating snacks while watching Seinfeld, or talking to someone on the phone longer than expected (usually because it’s going so well). Or perhaps I simply got derailed from my well-planned day after some surprise work suddenly showed up.

We’ve all experienced “off days” where, for no apparent reason, we just aren’t able to complete things we’ve set out to do. Sure, there are going to be days where you’re firing on all cylinders, but there will also be days when you’re undermined by one thing or another for reasons beyond your control. There is no point in beating yourself up for it.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my workstation in the morning doing creative work when I started feeling a bit dizzy (mild vertigo, I suspect). I closed my eyes and stayed put in my chair for a few minutes until I started to feel normal again. Soon after, I chose to get some rest and decided I’d work later. Of course, I ended up resting for most of that afternoon and didn’t resume work until the next morning.

Now, it would have been easy for me to beat myself up for not doing the work I had planned for the day, but it wasn’t entirely in my control, and it wouldn’t have been fair to myself (or to anyone in this situation) to deny that. I did the best I could given the situation and circumstance, because that’s all you can do. I chalked up the incident to “life” and moved on. Rather than prodding on, you have to listen to your body and do right by it. If it means to stop work and take a break, so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But, that’s not what we typically do in these situations, is it? We beat ourselves up for thinking and wishing these things wouldn’t happen to us. We shame ourselves for not living up to our (lofty) expectations. We have implicitly chosen not to accept our situation for what it is, while also doing nothing to change it. Of course, frustration ensues in the middle, which is a terrible place to be.

We don’t hold others to the same high standards we have set for ourselves, and that’s unfair. Why do we persist on giving ourselves a hard time when we wouldn’t do the same to others? Why not extend ourselves the same courtesy and allow some slack when it’s clear that we aren’t able to do the work?

Another example happened to me last week when I found out that, after a mere 2-year production run, my watchmaker of choice discontinued a watch I was planning to get soon. I felt a great pang of regret over this, because earlier this year I had actually ordered the watch with an authorized dealer abroad, with plans to travel to that country over the summer and pick it up in person while attending a conference there. Unfortunately, the oncoming pandemic prevented me from doing so, and I had to cancel the order.

I became conflicted about whether I should still try to get this watch somehow (a tall order, considering prices and demand going way up) or simply let it go (easier said than done). I got caught up in researching how I could get it, which meant I couldn’t get myself to do the work I had planned on doing. In fact, I spent a significant amount of time and attention for a couple of days on this, which took me away from the work.

The problem was that, even if I was able to do the work, I lacked the space for it. I can’t “force” myself to be creative; it’s impossible.

In these kinds of situations, you just have to move on. Take it easy and give yourself a break once in a while. If a day isn’t going particularly well—and again, not all of them are going to be perfect—instead of forcing things on yourself, why not go to the beach, take a walk, spend time with a loved one doing fun things, or do something resourceful with your time other than work?

Wallow in being unproductive. Stop beating yourself up for not doing enough. Enjoy the relief of getting nothing done today. It’s okay to take a day (or more) off. Sometimes, that’s the best thing you can do. You can always come back to your work later, or the following morning, or whenever you’re refreshed again. Give yourself permission to not feel guilty about it.

Stop comparing yourself to your ideals and lower your standards. It’s time to stop shaming yourself for not living up to your unreasonably high expectations. Celebrate your wins instead. Rather than look at how far you need to go, reflect on how far you have come.

Be gentle with yourself.

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