By Candice Louisa Daquin
I had a client who struggled with her self-identification as ‘ordinary.’ A Millennial, she’d grown up with social media and the perpetuated confrontation of perfectionism that it can sometimes embody. Growing up middle-class she’d felt the pressures of reaching certain goals, even if they were not her own goals. We talked about how this has been true well before the advent of social media. Society has long held ideas of what individuals ‘should’ accomplish, depending upon your background and parenting. Many children were given no incentive and left to rot on the shelf, whilst others were hounded by external pressures; relatives, academic institutions, peers, or those they admired.
For girls this ‘pressure’ is more recent, as historically girls were not expected to achieve in the same way boys were. In the last 100 years this has begun to shift, with women gaining traction in the career stakes. However, as with any advance, there are pitfalls and some women now, are putting ever increasing pressure on themselves to ‘become everything.’
By ‘become everything’ I mean; mother, provider, educated, career success, care giver, slim, healthy and attractive. And for some, this is attainable. I know many women who function well with huge responsibilities, not least, thriving careers, multiple children, and sufficient energy to stay fit, eat well and not indulge in vices like smoking.
But for every woman who is able to juggle all of the above, there are many who find it too much. Unfortunately, if one person is able to juggle everything, society can be unkind and denigrate those who are not able to, as if this is somehow a failing. In large populations the survival of the fittest is most acute and social media shines a light on success, leaving many feeling ‘less than’. Let’s examine if not being able to ‘do it all’ is indeed, a failing.
Firstly: Everyone is different. But that is no consolation for those who perceive they are not favourably compared to others. What comfort is it to know you are different, when that translates as ‘not being able to do what others can’? Especially in a competitive world where failure isn’t really tolerated. Moreover, how do we feel good about ourselves when we’re confronted with many examples of success and are constantly under scrutiny, by ourselves and others?
In the past – before social media – it was harder to compare yourself against a large swath of people. We weren’t as in touch with each other and what each other was doing. Imagine the famous Bronte sisters, living in a remote moor, having to send letters to far-flung friends, rarely seeing anyone. In some ways this was unbearable. In other ways it avoided direct scrutiny. In the past, we may have not had the rapidity of expectation we have today, given we did less, because the opportunities to do more were harder to obtain. Class divide was more stringent. If you were born the son of a labourer, chances were that’s what you’d been. The ability to climb the social ladder was prohibitive. Today if a young woman lives in a city, she has access to the potential avenues of education, finding a partner, having children, having a career, buying a home, working out in a gym, making friends, etc. We are no longer stuck in houses on the moors or in far-off villages in the same numbers. Even so, class divide exists even if we don’t want to admit it does. If your parents have the funds to send you to the best school, then your outcome is likely to be more fortunate than someone who has no means.
But realistically and statistically how many young women today can bank on having it all? Even if they are capable of working extreme long days – in a job, holding down children and a marriage successfully, finding time for socialising and working out and more, even if they can somehow juggle those stressors and are glad to be emancipated from previous restrictions. How many can keep this level of pressure up and at what cost? For every woman who can, there are doubtless, those who can’t. And it’s not always about choice, it can be due to ill health, mental health issues, stamina, different aspirations, or simply a lack of interest in competing. Perhaps we should get away from the idea that having it all is indeed the only legitimate form of ‘success.’
Case-in-point, just the other day a client boasted of working 16-hour days because for her, this was a point of pride. What wasn’t said, was that shortly after ten years of 16-hour days, she got seriously ill and had to quit work. What wasn’t said is her eldest daughter ran away from home because she spent many days unsupervised by workaholic parents. When the client stopped working 16-hour days, she saw that the façade of ‘having it all’ was just that. She spent more time with her kids, without feeling she was failing to do so. Her marriage, which was hanging on by a thread, was healed. She had to de-program the idea that she was ‘failing’ by not doing it all – part of that was realising a 16-hour work day isn’t very balanced. Some do it, but there is an invariable sacrifice, and the question should always be; how much is too much and why do we as a society tolerate this?
Just as we should tell our daughters (and sons) that your self-worth shouldn’t be tied to shallow modes of success, it’s worthwhile admitting that many can and do ‘have it all.’ It very much depends upon what we seek in life. If our goal is to be a workaholic then we should consider whether we realistically have time for other things, and not attempt to have it all, so much as aim for what we want. Society however tells us that we’re lacking if we’re not able to do it all – even if that’s not what we want to do. Why does society put this pressure on people? Perhaps because it’s the nature of competition; If one person can do it, then you have to try harder to match them. Soon, even people who didn’t want what you wanted, are striving for it. The alternative might be obscurity.
As populations grow, you see this in countries with the largest population masses. In order to get what was once relatively attainable, people are having to work harder and harder because the relative competition is greater. This leads to a bottle-neck pressure, where top universities don’t have the space for all the qualified applicants. Cheating, subterfuge, paying off professors and other methods are employed to ensure a child gets that coveted placement. Equally, more-and-more unpaid internships are expected of young people, leading to only those who can afford to work without pay, succeeding. The price being paid for what was once attainable through regular hard work, is now exaggerated.
I recall as a young person I envied and admired young women who seemed capable of getting up at 5am to work out, send their child off to school with a packed lunch, keep their husband engaged in their marriage, find time to stock the fridge and clean the house, whilst working gruelling hours in a high demanding career. Young women who seemed to have boundless energy and ambition, always seemed to have clear skin and glossy hair and wear flattering clothes, and genuinely seemed happy. I felt there must be something wrong with me because I couldn’t cope with such a ‘full dance card’. I’m sympathetic then for those young women two decades later, who talk to me of similar feelings of inadequacy.
What do you say to someone who feels inadequate when you know there are many who can have it all?
Those young women who had it all – interestingly sometimes also sought counselling. And whilst you may secretly wish they came to a counsellor and revealed they could never cope, they were hanging by a thread. That was often not the case. Instead, these young women would express something none of us might anticipate.
Feelings of failure and incompleteness.
Surely if you ‘have it all’ you couldn’t possibly feel empty, or have feelings of failure? After all – you have it all!
But that’s the funny thing about ‘having it all’ it’s as much an illusion as believing you have nothing. These are two extremes. And many high achievers are never truly content because it is the feeling of not doing enough that drives them.
Have you ever met someone who clearly didn’t ‘have it all’ but they seem so happy? Yes. It is a little-known fact that people with less, are often more content. The old adage, money won’t buy you happiness isn’t far wrong. Of course, most of us want to be in a position so that we do not have to worry about finances. If you don’t have enough to live without those fears, you don’t have the luxury of being content with less. However, if you are in that lower middle band, where you may not have a lot or have achieved what you believe describes success, but you have enough to not worry about putting food on your plate or fixing your roof if there is a bad storm, then you may know contentment. Perhaps this is why people in socialist friendly countries like Norway and Sweden tend to rate highest on the world happiness scale? Because those basic needs are taken care of such as maternity leave, child credits and health care whether you work or not, and that leaves them to consider the actual process of being content.
Being content looks different to different people.
So, for an over-achiever who lives and dies by their measure of success which is often, almost verging on being unrealistic, they may not be as content as someone who isn’t as much of a high achiever. This is why there are two types of people who most commonly drop out of university: the extreme under-achiever (no surprise) and the extreme over-achiever. [MC1] The latter is a surprise to many and the reason is equally shocking. Over-achievers are more likely to implode, self-sabotage and leave university for what many of us would consider absurd reasons. Case in point: When I was a teacher, I often saw straight A students drop out because they made a A-. On that basis alone. Their grade was the kind of grade most would kill for, but to them, a 95 instead of 100 was the equivalent of abject failure. Many times, I met super-intelligent people who would be working ‘regular’ jobs because they couldn’t finish university and get the job they wanted to get, for this reason.
These discrepancies in how we perceive high achievers teaches us that just looking at someone doesn’t tell us who they are. Our perception of others is often wholly wrong. Any doubts about that and consider a family of ten. Two parents, eight kids. Invariably each child holds a different perspective of their childhood and experience. They do not grow up to be the same even if they’re identical twins. Why? Because our individualism comes from our perspective and no two people hold the same perspective. Perspective is more than what religion you are, what gender, what life experiences you have. It is about the culmination of everything and then the actual vantage point from which your perspective is formed.
Imagine a room with those ten people in it. Something significant happens, ten people walk away with ten slightly different perspectives and experiences. Just by being individuals. It is why bystander testimony is so unreliable, human beings are too subjective and bound by their own perspectives to be objective.
Consider then the over achiever, whilst you may envy them their success, they may be tormented. Equally they may be happy, but still feel they have not succeeded by their standards. Someone who is ‘ordinary’ if any such definition can be made (the argument being, we’re all extraordinary in our own way) may be more content without having achieved as much. In this case, it is more than okay to be ‘just ordinary.’ Modern society possesses many examples of exacerbating stressors such as the pressure to gain a certain grade to get into a coveted school. Despite being an over-achiever, it may not be enough and then even the over-achievers ‘fail.’ By not having those pressures in the first place, you avoid the potential success but also the downfall. It’s not easy being under the spotlight with everyone expecting you to perform. The advantage some over-achievers have, is they may excel under pressure, or be galvanised by it. But what of those who don’t find pressure helps them?
Back to my client. She was not content to be ordinary because she’d grown up with the competing pressures of a high achieving brother who ‘could do no wrong’ and her own feeling of inadequacy. But how much of that was hard truth versus her perspective? In reality it was all her perspective and because of that – it was also possible to shift that perspective to give her a chance at being less judgmental of herself.
How do you change the way you perceive things? How do you stop judging yourself for not measuring up if you are bombarded by subliminal messages that you’re not ‘enough?’
What constitutes ‘enough’ when we’ve got disparate views on what enough means? If we have low-self-esteem we’re more likely to judge ourselves harshly on not being enough, than if we are content or somewhat satisfied. If we’re too satisfied or narcissistic, we may believe we’re far ‘better’ than we in truth are. The delusion is at both ends of the extreme, telling us being an extreme usually doesn’t work out. There’s a big difference between being ambitious and letting ambition determine your self-worth. Literally, speaking there is no such thing as not being enough. There is no such thing as someone being better than someone else. Those ideas of inequity begin and end with our faulty perceptions. If we see everyone as potentially equal and follow the path we want to be on, we’re more likely to reach contentment than striving to please others, or follow someone else’s agenda for us.
Likewise, if someone is more beautiful, so what? If your boyfriend leaves you for someone more beautiful, it’s going to hurt but you’re better off without him. If someone more beautiful is also more talented than good for them. If someone more beautiful and more talented gets a job over you, good for them. You don’t have to take it personally because it’s not personal. There will always be someone who is (more talented, more beautiful, richer, more ‘successful’ in the eyes of the world). Once you realise that, you are free. Free to be yourself. Unapologetically. In many ways it comes down to freeing yourself of what others think. This is not something we can usually do until we reach a degree of maturity. If you’ve ever noticed that older people don’t seem to give a hoot about what people think of them, this might be why!
Perception is a funny thing. Whilst you may be lamenting your failure and ineptitude, or hating your failures, someone else may dream of being exactly where you are at. Someone may admire you for exactly who you are. That’s because our internal notions of what is unquestionable truth, are slanted by our inability to be objective about ourselves. How many times have you admired a person who seemingly feels they can do no right? Artists who think their work is awful, when so many love it? Dancers who leave their careers thinking they’re never going to be good enough, when they enraptured entire audiences? Models who believe they are ugly? Novelists who never write a second novel because they thought the first inferior? The perceptions we hold can be faulty and sabotage our creations. When that straight-A student thinks she’s mediocre, someone else might be dying to be just like her. Conversely, the student who doesn’t put as much onus on being the best, may be less tortured.
Navigating the world is often challenging. Ensuring you have enough self-respect but not too much or too little, is a life-long balancing act. It helps if you can read the cues of others, instead of assuming everything is a personal attack. An interesting book about different people you work with, taught me early on that not only are no two people alike, but we must consider how people come to the table, what forms their differences, if we want to stand a chance at communicating with them. In today’s world where neuro-diversity is more common place, and many people have complicated communication and diametric differences, it’s more important than ever to learn how to communicate with people you may struggle to understand.
If you consider the world had approximately half the population it has in 2022 – only sixty years ago – competition is fiercer than ever. Being ‘ordinary’ could make it harder to secure certain jobs. But ironically, employers gravitate to ‘ordinary’ because they want reliable, efficient but are often put off by high achievers (and of course, low achievers) as being too extreme. The competition at the top isn’t an enviable place when you consider the varied pressures it entails without any guarantee of the level of attainment striven for.
On the other hand, I appreciate my Millennial client’s perspective. Deluged with Instagram photos of seemingly perfect people in all senses of the word. Everywhere people want to be something more than they are. The few who reach contentment realise the wasted years focusing on ‘more’ – which doesn’t mean ambition is bad, or desiring to achieve is wrong, but like everything in life, it’s about balance. I told my client that sometimes imagining how she will feel in ten- or twenty-years’ time is a valuable exercise. Why? Because we don’t do that. We think of what we want in the future (financial security, good health etc.) but not what we will FEEL in the future. Sometimes imagining what you’ll feel in ten- or twenty-years’ time is a way to gauge what you really need (and don’t need).
Ultimately there will come a time in many of ours lives where we look back and say ‘that wasn’t important why did I spend so much time focused on it?’ The old adage, when you’re on your death bed will you wish to have spent more time in the office? At the same time there are those who live for work and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s about finding what we want, rather than what we think we should be. Avoid the ‘if only’ and consider what you really want now, and in the future, and aim for that. Be realistic. And in so doing, you may come to see that being ‘ordinary’ is a privilege not afforded everyone and something to cherish. Nobody is perfect. Nobody has to be perfect. Perfection is recognising that who you are is enough. For some of us, being ‘ordinary’ is the nirvana we hope to attain.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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