High standards getting you down?

High standards are tricky. They can be great motivators or you can use them to beat up yourself and others. It all depends on whether you think of them as goals or measures. And if they’re grounded in reality.

I have always been pretty active and am generally involved in a number of different things. At one point I was working full time, swing dancing 4-5 nights a week, and regularly rock climbing on weekends plus the occasional evening or morning before work.

One night I was out dancing and someone started asking me about rock climbing. I started going on about how amazing it was, the exhilaration of climbing outside, how much I’d learned about myself through conquering my fears. She said, “You must be a good climber,” and I shook my head and laughed, saying no, I just enjoyed it. A friend jumped into the conversation at that point and said, “Cianna is a good climber. It’s just that she compares herself to people who do nothing but climb.”

I felt like I was caught out. He was right. I was comparing my skill level to friends who had been climbing for years before I touched my first wall, with people who planned all their ruler wooden hinged vacations based on the quality of the routes and chose jobs to support climbing, with diehards who lived in Yosemite most of the summer and who had even sacrificed relationships for the sake of climbing. I, on the other hand, had been climbing a couple hours a week for 2-3 years in between dancing and working and spending a lot of time with non-climber friends.

I realized my measuring stick was way off. There was no way I should expect myself to be at their level. Nor (truthfully) did I want to do what they’d done to be there.

Since then, I’ve tried to be sure that I chose appropriate comparisons for myself in climbing and in all aspects of my life. I can have role models, sure, but that’s different from saying “I should be at their level,” particularly if I know I haven’t put in the time and effort.

This is not to say that I let go of my high standards for myself. I still have them and I still set lofty goals.I still tend to look to singularly-focused people as examples of what’s possible to help set those goals. The big shift is that when I get down on myself for not having achieved something, I take a moment and figure out what I’m comparing myself to, and then I ask if that’s a valid comparison to make.*

It’s not unusual to discover that my mental image of what my level of achievement should be hinges on a denial of reality. So often I’ve once again been focusing on the achievements of a specialist or I’ve been expecting perfection.

I then pause and consider the commitment it would take to be at that level, all the intervening steps between where I am and where they are. I consider whether I want to put in that effort, think about my current life and what I’d have to change/sacrifice in order to take those steps, and then (only then) decide if I want to set that as a goal. Even at that point it’s difficult to let go of the expectation of success or achievement. But I try to switch myself to evaluating whether or not I took intermediate steps, trying to measure myself on actions instead of outcomes.

The more I can focus on the process, the kinder I can be to myself, and (seemingly paradoxically) the longer I can stay motivated.

Standards. Expectations. Measures. Goals. Outcomes. Actions.

It’s valuable to sort out what’s in your head.


*This is also a useful practice when I catch myself passing judgment on someone else, complaining that something should have been done some other way. I step back and consider what I’m basing that comparison — that should — on.

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