Should we always stick at it?

Completing something you’ve started can deliver a satisfying sense of achievement, particularly if the effort has been especially challenging. For example, running a marathon, completing a degree, or producing a work of art. Achievements like these can deliver benefits in their own right, and maybe lead to other opportunities too. To keep us on track with our efforts, motivation is available from various resources, including professional coaches in their respective fields and, if we’re lucky, supportive family or friends. Resources like these can enable us to rise to challenges that we might otherwise have shrunk from or have felt unachievable. Some exceptional achievers seem naturally highly motivated anyway, and often we are encouraged to emulate them in order to achieve our own successes.

So what does it say about us if we find it too hard to keep going? Is it ever okay to quit? Do we always have to keep persevering when we feel overwhelmed?

A recent newsletter from the National Counselling Society has highlighted the trait of demanding impossible standards from ourselves and others, and says that ‘perfectionism as a pathological trait is on the rise’. The NCS refers to a number of ‘contributing and amplifying factors [such as the] cropped versions of other people’s lives’ thrust at us by increasingly pervasive social media.

So what is happening when we go too far with unreasonable efforts and defy what our instincts are telling us? Are we trying to be the person we think we ought to be instead of allowing ourselves to be the person we really are? And if so, why is this?

It might help to consider how we value ourselves. Unless we are a threat to others in some way you could say we have the perfect right to be the person who we are, whatever judgements others may make of us (or what we might think they do). So if our personal values tell us that ‘giving up’ always means we are a failure then maybe we should challenge those values and ask how we might have developed them. Are they really our own values or were they introjected from outside influences?

Our more basic instincts to stop trying can be telling us more than we might be prepared to accept. If we are inclined to stick with a job/relationship/project just because giving up on it makes us feel bad about ourselves, maybe we should ask what it is that ‘giving up’ says about us and why it feels so unacceptable?

This can be hard to penetrate when our ‘seeing it through’ strategies have been developed over a lifetime. And yet we all have a deep and natural developmental tendency to grow towards genuine fulfilment (what Carl Rogers called our ‘actualising tendency’) and discover our true selves; that is, the person untainted by artificial imperatives imposed by others. It is when our unconscious inner sense recognises that this positive tendency is being blocked that our discomfort eventually motivates us to do something about it, even if it takes us a while to work out how.