You finished all the tasks on your to-do list. You got a promotion. You aced a test. You met an important goal. You landed an important client. You worked really hard today.
And yet it’s not enough.
It’s never enough. There’s always more to do. There’s always more you can do.
Many of us rarely feel satisfied with ourselves and our accomplishments. Zoë Kahn’s clients regularly tell her these things: “It seems like everyone else has it all figured out and I’m the one constantly figuring things out in the moment. All the time.” “I feel exhausted. Sometimes it makes me want to give up.” “I feel so disappointed in myself if I don’t finish everything on my list. There’s always something more. I can’t relax.”
This compelling, persistent, won’t-quiet urge to do more and to do better stems from deep within. It stems from a “deep, underlying fear that we ourselves are not enough,” said Rebecca Turner, MFT, a psychotherapist who works for a community mental health agency in the Antelope Valley, Calif. “We try to prove our worth to ourselves and others through our accomplishments and productivity.” Which is a grueling way to live (and a fruitless endeavor).
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to stay shackled to a measuring stick or to our to-do lists. Here’s a range of tips to help, from digging to the root of the problem to practically approaching the day-to-day.
Explore your dissatisfaction. Kahn, a licensed clinical social worker, suggested taking a deeper look at your dissatisfaction by asking these questions: “Is my dissatisfaction stemming from comparing myself to others? When do I notice that I feel triggered by feelings of dissatisfaction with myself? Are there patterns in my constant dissatisfaction: Are [these feelings] only around work or relationships or is it across all facets of my life?”
Uncover the fear you’re running away from. Now dig even deeper. Again, it’s important to understand your underlying fears, because feeding the urge to keep accomplishing doesn’t satiate us. “In fact, it drives us further and further away by reinforcing the idea that success equals satisfaction,” Turner said.
She suggested journaling your response to this question: “If I did not _______ [e.g., pass this class, get that promotion], what does that say about me?” For instance, you might realize that it says you’re a complete disappointment or a failure or a fraud. These are your underlying fears, and they’re powering the urge to keep accomplishing more and more. And these are the fears you need to work through.
Keep your expectations low—and lower. This tip also comes from Turner, who totally understands if it grates on your nerves. Because the idea of lowering expectations still frustrates her. But it’s imperative: “The drive to assuage our deep fear of unworthiness through endless strings of successes and checked-off to-do lists is driven by our conscious and unconscious expectations,” she said.
Turner’s sister has a sign in her home that says: “The key to happiness is low expectations. Lower. Nope, even lower [an arrow points down to the bottom of the sign]. There you go.”
Reflect on your expectations, which are likely sky-high, and practice lowering them. These expectations may be about everything from who you’re supposed to be to how you’re supposed to look to what you’re supposed to be doing.
When we lower our expectations, we realize that doing so doesn’t destroy our lives, Turner said. It gives us more breathing room and freedom, she said.
Create mini conclusions. A practical approach to feeling satisfied instead of striving for more (and more and more) on a given day is to divide projects or big goals into small, feasible tasks, said Kahn. You’re likely all-too familiar with this technique.
But what’s so essential about it is that once you accomplish a step, you get a sense of completion. Finishing each step becomes a separate win.
Kahn also suggested celebrating each win: You might journal about your accomplishments for this step and the challenges you navigated. You might go out to dinner and talk about it with a friend.
Connect to your compassion. When you find yourself having disparaging thoughts or fixating on other people’s accomplishments and comparing yourself, Kahn suggested practicing this exercise: Take a deep breath, imagining your breath “as air filling up a balloon and then slowly deflating the balloon.” Then tell yourself, “With each inhale I breathe in compassion and acceptance for myself and others. With each exhale, I let go of fear, doubt and worry.”
Kahn noted that you can use any phrases that resonate with you. “[T]he key is to bring awareness to compassion for yourself and others.”
If the above tips don’t seem to help, consider working with a therapist. Your insatiable drive to keep achieving, to keep crossing tasks off your never-ending list not only leaves you feeling dissatisfied. It leaves you mentally, emotionally and physically drained. Because, as Kahn said, “If nothing is good enough, where does it end?” And whether you realize it or not, you deserve better. Much better.