I’ve recently noticed in both my personal and professional life that many of us either constantly strive to make our lives more satisfying or feel bad if we don’t make enough of an effort to be better at what we do. We challenge ourselves to become more competent, more effective, setting out an aspiration that sets a high bar for ourselves. It’s good to be reaching for something more, not to rest on our laurels no matter how much we think we have achieved. Especially in our field, dealing with conflict is difficult, calling upon us to do so much to help people. There is always more for all of us to learn in order to be more effective.
But there is a down side to this striving. With the pressure to succeed, we can easily feel disappointed in ourselves when we don’t live up to our self-created expectations, never mind other peoples.’ It is particularly difficult to measure our accomplishments. If litigators, the measure is simple; either we win or we lose. In mediation, the tendency is to judge our success by whether the parties reached an agreement or not. Yet it is much more complex to know how important our contribution is to the parties’ reaching an agreement when we understand that their motivations are far more central in determining whether they reach an agreement than whatever we think we did to help.
Often we end up second-guessing ourselves, particularly if we fall into the trap of believing that we should have done better. This is a recipe for burn out, or at the very least, living a life in which we suffer from our own self-judgment.
What then can we do? We’re not about to, nor should we, give up on pursuing excellence. But what is realistic and can help a lot is if we cultivate patience and acceptance. Not easy to do when something happens with my clients that is upsetting. I wonder what else I could have done to help.
More recently, and maybe this is a byproduct of being about to reach the age of 70, I have become more inclined to give myself a break, to realize that I am not quite as important as I would like to think in the process of the success of any particular mediation. And I also notice that if I can lighten up on myself, I am also more effective. This is not the same thing as settling for mediocrity. It is something more like acceptance of the realities that I and my clients face. I’d like to think that the days of the tyranny of perfection no longer have the same hold on me as in the past, and I’d like to recommend you do the same.