Have you taken the Strengthsfinder 2.0 inventory? Buy the book and inside you’ll find a sealed envelope with a one-time code to take the test, designed by the Gallup Poll folks, which purports to tell you your top five strengths.
According to Strengthsfinder, my top strength is Connectedness, and my next highest strength is Achiever.
Anyone who knows me would not be the least surprised at this second one.
That number two strength, Achiever, means that one of the features of being me is a constant need for achievement.
This can be a good thing, as it drives me to keep going, growing, and reaching.
It can also be a not-so-good thing, as I’m prone to feeling pretty unhappy on days when I don’t produce much. Face it, I’m happiest when I feel like I’ve been really productive.
Here’s what the Gallup Business Journal has to say about the Achiever type (emphases mine):
Your Achiever theme helps explain your drive. Achiever describes a constant need for achievement. You feel as if every day starts at zero. By the end of the day you must achieve something tangible in order to feel good about yourself. And by “every day” you mean every single day — workdays, weekends, vacations. No matter how much you may feel you deserve a day of rest, if the day passes without some form of achievement, no matter how small, you will feel dissatisfied.
Yep. That’s me to a T.
Not surprisingly, this can make it hard for me to truly relax.
A real vacation I can enjoy (though I also confess that my vacations tend to be pretty oriented toward doing something, rather than lying around doing nothing). However, a “hooky day” that becomes a “hooky day” because other stuff gets in the way of my intentions, or because I’m just tired or feeling rebellious, that leaves me feeling yucky.
Take yesterday. By any reasonable measure, yesterday was a great day:
- I had a therapeutic massage, and the fact that I only winced a little, rather than begging for mercy for half the time, indicated great improvements.
- I walked to and from the massage — 40 minutes of brisk walking total — which felt great, and meant I got to check off my “I exercised today” box in my goal-tracker app, without even having to go to the gym! (Did I mention I’m an Achiever?)
- I got my hair cut.
- I got some wonderful “quality time” with MB.
MB and I even made a start toward implementing the new backup system we have planned for my new iMac, which involved much untangling and unplugging of cables (many of which turned out — lo and behold — not to be plugged into anything (!)) and initiating transferring my computer backups to a brand, new backup drive. This counted, big time, toward my long-term clutterbusting goals (even though it has temporarily made my studio even more cluttered…)
A good day, right?
Yet when I went to bed I felt frustrated. Dissatisfied. I never got to the projects I’d intended to make inroads on, which left me filled with a sense of “I’m not making any progress,” which in turn led me down the road to hopelessness, despair, and “what’s the point?”
The Golden Formula to the Rescue!
Years ago I might have wallowed in this state of unhappiness for days. This was never helpful (still isn’t), and usually led me to be even less productive the next day, rather than more, creating a rather vicious cycle.
Thankfully, over the years I’ve evolved a much more useful response. Last night, when I noticed my feelings heading down from dissatisfaction toward despair, I whipped out my Golden Formula:
Self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good. (Click to tweet this!)
So what does that mean? How does one actually apply this formula in practice?
Here’s a peek at what works for me and how I used it last night:
1) Notice the feelings.
My first step is the opposite of what I used to do. Instead of trying to stuff the feelings or make them go away, I instead practice self-awareness or mindfulness.
I consciously notice my feelings, as if “stepping outside of the distress” to look at it from the outside, from a place of neutrality.
I observe with curiosity, rather than judgment.
“Huh,” I might say to myself, “I notice I’m feeling dissatisfied. I notice a sense of despair starting to creep up on me.”
Practicing mindfulness this way is like looking at myself-in-my-distress as a fascinating creature under the microscope. And because I know that feelings are transitory, I can more easily separate myself from my feelings.
This practice of self-awareness doesn’t make me feel better, in that it doesn’t make the lousy feelings stop, but it loosens their grip on me. Something about separating myself from my feelings makes them easier to bear. It helps me become more comfortable with my discomfort.
(Side Benefit of Enormous Proportions: since I know that just about everything worth doing requires me to lean into discomfort to one degree or another, getting comfortable with discomfort is the Number One skill to develop if you want to accomplish anything worth doing! (Click to tweet this!)
2) Respond with self-compassion.
Our reflex is so often to respond to ourselves in a harsh, judgmental way. When I’m frustrated at not achieving a goal I’d set for myself, the temptation is strong to lambast myself.
But beating yourself up is not an effective long-term motivator. Self-flagellation only makes you feel worse, and with the threat of a beating looming if you fail next time, it becomes safer not to try at all.
Yikes! Talk about an anti-incentive!
Nowadays, my motto is, “Don’t beat yourself up, love yourself up.” (Click to tweet this!) I’ve found it works a helluva lot better.
From that observer viewpoint “outside of the distress,” here’s how I can react:
I can comfort myself for feeling bad:
“Oh, sweetie, I know you’re feeling frustrated. I hear you. I understand.”
I can remind myself of reality and remind myself I’m not alone:
“I hope you can see that it was actually a good day in many ways, even though it also left you feeling hugely frustrated. It was so fun to spend time with MB, and you’ve made real progress on getting an automatic backup system set up. Besides, everyone has days when they accomplish less than they’d like. And everybody deserves a rest day — it’s really okay that you took one.”
I can mentor myself to make whatever adjustments are necessary to make tomorrow a better day:
“I know you’d like to feel more productive tomorrow, so let’s think about how we can make sure that happens. Let’s spend some time journaling to figure out what you’d like to accomplish tomorrow, what might get in the way, how to avoid those stumbling blocks, and what you’ll do if you trip on one.”
(For more details on self-compassion and why it’s so important and effective, I highly recommend Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion.)
All of the above is exactly what I did. And since I still have a long way to go on my goal of reasonable goal-setting, I expect to get many more opportunities to practice implementing this Golden Formula.
Bring it on, baby! I’m ready!
Meanwhile, excuse me, but sure and begorrah, ’tis a grand day to be alive! I’m off to achieve something this Saint Patrick’s Day. 😉
May the road rise to meet you.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!