Being gentle or giving up?

Where is the line between being gentle with myself and not trying hard enough?  I have never been able to reliably locate that border.  At all.  When I wrote about a difficult yoga practice one, and the realization that what I want in this life might be summed up in one word – ease – someone commented that maybe a gritted-teeth practice might not lead me where I want to go.

And of course, of course, that’s true.  But on the other hand, doesn’t the road to transcendence wind through a jungle of sometimes-scary hard work?  That’s what I always thought.  I’m prone to give up before something gets truly hard – this is especially germane in the physical realm.  People have always told me I’m disciplined, and I’m complimented when I hear that, but inside my head a little voice says: oh if only you knew.  All I can hear is a loud la-la-la and litany of all the times I haven’t done as much or gone as far as I think I should have.

Is this just another version of imposter syndrome?

The truth is I don’t know.  When I was a child I used to be fascinated by the idea of relative pain.  For example, when I have a crushing headache, would that be something another person would brush off, or something that would send them to the ER?  I did not know, and I still don’t.  Of course what I do know now is it doesn’t matter, because all we have is our own experience to calibrate (and, for the record, I now relate everything to the pain of my 38 hour unmedicated labor with a posterior baby, which functions as a pretty unshakeable 10 on the 0-10 pain scale).

The question of being kind vs. giving up is like this, I think.  It’s so personal, so subjective, the only relevant data we have is our own.  It feels like letting myself off the hook to not want to hold bridge for the extra 5 seconds, and I’m often disappointed in myself when I come down.  Or when I go to sleep rather than writing another page.  How do I figure out if this is the precise gentleness I need in a moment or if I should have pushed myself further?  I genuinely don’t know the answer.

How do I ascertain when I need to go and when I need to stop?  When to push and when to ease up?  What it is to be softer with myself?

41 thoughts on “Being gentle or giving up?”

  1. Dear Lindsey,
    How is it that you so often articulate just the questions/experiences I am wrestling with myself? How is it that you even have the same persistent strange ones?

    Yes, the question about relative pain. In my mid-20s, during my second year of teaching, I remember telling our school’s drug/alcohol counselor that I was beginning to understand that I’d grown up in a dysfunctional family, but I was sure it could not have impacted me much. Even in that short time, I’d come to know students who were struggling with so much more than I ever had. I felt like some kind of self-indulgent narcissist to even claim the label “dysfunctional” or to think that I had suffered.

    “I know so many students who have endured horrible pain,” I said to her. “How can I think that mine matters? How can that be a reason for me to fail at things or make bad choices?”

    “Your pain is your pain,” she said. “That someone else has what might be more–which you can’t really know–doesn’t change the quality of yours for you or how it’s impacted you.”

    That felt like profound truth, which is why I still remember the conversation, but I am still working to understand what it really means, from things as seemingly minor as a yoga session to as fundamentally important as marriage and parenting.

  2. The Yoga Sutras tell us that wholeness requires 2 things: Abhyasa (discipline/practice) and vairagya (letting go). It sounds as though you’ve reached a new plane of your own yoga practice/spiritual life. It’s not about the appearance or percieved effort of the pose, it’s the attitude of it. Whether you come down from bridge in 5 breaths or 15, can you let it go with a heartfelt, “Way to go, Lindsey.” Your whole self was there, not tolerating pain but containing the moment fully– then letting it go, with love, for yourself most of all. xo

  3. It’s funny, I was just thinking/writing about this very topic. I struggle with this, too. I am a (lapsed) yoga teacher, and just read an article about re-thinking your word choices when giving cues and adjustments while teaching a class. Instead of saying “pull your shoulders down from your ears,” consider saying, “soften your shoulders,” etc. I look at at it as allowing vs. forcing. But I think in order to “allow” for something, there has to be a moment of stillness/silence/discernment first. Anyway;) My two cents. Great post.

  4. I’m still working through my own pain, both old and new. I suppose we all are. However, I am grateful that I acknowledge it, at least, and try to make some sense of it through writing and sharing.

    So many of my extended family have not connected the dots and refuse to deal with their own flaws or addictions–perpetuating the circle of pain and dysfunction rather than breaking it. Their growth is stunted; they’re stopped in their tracks, because they refuse to acknowledge the pain of the past.

  5. Ultimately, I think you know—this questing and aching and doubting and then falling back into the yes of hurt and failure being the underbelly of beauty and triumph, it is the path that you walk. Stumbling is a part of it and I am grateful every time that you are so open about it.


  6. I was just upstairs in my new house, thinking of you and hopped on my laptop and saw your link. I, like Rita above, was just thinking of these very questions, and interestingly, was thinking of them as I thought of how in awe I am of all of the things you accomplish in a day and how paltry my list pales in comparison. And therein lies *my* personal problem–comparison. I try so hard NOT to do this, knowing that it is a shell game, that I must strive for and accomplish what is right for me, right now.


    When to push? When to ease up? Yes, yes yes. How do I calibrate my own indicators of success? Where does that fragile line reside between being kind to myself and making excuses? I wish I knew.

    Thanks for your words.

  7. I have taken 7 weeks off of yoga because of a bulging disc in my back and I am struggling with how to re-enter my yoga practice. It is so hard to know. I don’t want to hurt myself again and yet I don’t want to “give up.” And the writing process gets me too…just one more page, it’s only midnight…

    Thanks for articulating this struggle so well.

  8. There is a wonderful quote in Edward P. Jones’ THE KNOWN WORLD about relative pain that I was thinking about just last week. Now I’m going to have to go fish it out.

    I that think knowing when and when not to push comes down to knowing which direction we tend to go. I tend to push too hard, so more often than not, when the question arises, I know what I need to do–but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for me to do it. xoxo

  9. I so love this question because I struggle with this a LOT. I too had an unmedicated posterior birth and it’s kind of a curse, because now, I think I’m a wimp if I can’t handle pain.

    Lately I have been more curious about my intention for a given experience and that sort of informs my decision about whether or not I am giving up or being kind. Sometimes giving up is really a good thing. I think as perfectionists, we can never really give up. So probably we are being kind:)

  10. This is a gift yoga gave me too, seeing how to balance my effort with my ease, and it’s a constant readjusting, the line you speak of is always shifting. One day plank is easy, I feel like I could stay there forever, so to balance out the ease means to tighten my core, make my self straight and stiff as a board without taking that too far from ease. Other days, I can’t manage plank at all, have to modify, drop to my knees to get anywhere close.

    And for me, this is practice, this is life — showing up, tuning in, staying present and open, asking in each moment, every breath, “what now? how does this feel? what’s arising now?” You really nailed it when you said this, “It’s so personal, so subjective, the only relevant data we have is our own.” We have to show up, open up, stay with our experience, trust ourselves, listen and adjust.

  11. I used to have that same obsession with relative pain, and when I told T about it he said, “how sad. Your head hurt. Isn’t that proof enough that you need medicine?” The metaphor is deep, I think. I get all twirled up in self-reflection on this kind of issue. I try to just apply some big, broad concepts, bumper-sticker-like. One is that I usually drive myself harder than is healthy, so if I think it’s time to stop, it probably really, really is. Maybe this resonates for you?

  12. I love how you describe this life – this practice. What a beautiful way to consider everything we experience. I will remember it. Thank you.

  13. I think you’re right, and that I ought to focus on my intention or where the impulse is coming from. I’ll try that!

  14. I’d love to hear that quote. And you’re right, I think, that our common patterns and habits tell us a lot about what we need. xoxo

  15. I wish I knew of anything to say other than thank you, me too. I’m grateful to know I’m not alone in this!! xox

  16. Thank YOU. That fragile line is the one I’m looking for … don’t know where it is. I DO know, though, that the comparison you’re talking about won’t help either of us find it … xoxo

  17. Oh, Amanda – you can describe everything about this life, this experience of mine, in a few beautiful, perfect words. Thank you. xoxox

  18. Wow. I hadn’t considered the difference between those two cues. So different. And discernment is one of my favorite words! 🙂

  19. I think that IS a profound truth. It’s still hard to really KNOW, though, at least for me. Another one of life’s many paradoxes: I can believe something to be absolutely true while not entirely being able to understand it.

  20. When I give up too easily, my gut feeling says “you are just being lazy” :). I think you know the feeling. If i pushed hard enough, even if I give up later, there is that feeling of “okay, i have done enough”.

  21. Lindsey, when I am in, say, bridge pose, and I’m like “ok, i’m done”…I check in with myself. I see if I’m gripping, if I’m struggling, if I’m all tight and holding my breath. Then I soften. I soften and infuse it with gentleness. What arises IS an awareness of whether or not I am pushing (which never works)myself OR if I am just uncomfortable because a wave is rising up (mental, emotional). I don’t “push through.” Or at least I try not to. I RELAX into it. I remember I’m the ocean. I am finding that NOTHING is gained, healed, or strengthened by me “pushing”…rather I allow. And soften. And be gentle with myself. Ok, so I attempt to be like this. I have cultivated the awareness of knowing if I’m pushing or if I’m just uncomfortable and want to “escape.” It’s the same in meditation. This is what I’ve seen rising up for me in my practice (yoga, meditation, living, parenting). Does this resonate with you? Lisa

  22. Crazy?! Moments before reading this I was trying to decide whether I should ‘quit’ an on-line writing that I am taking. I am having a hard time relating to the teacher and finding enough time to get the most out of it. Of course, the only word that is surrounding me as I think about it is ‘quit’ even though I would be stopping to open up time for other things. The life of a perfectionist is never easy. You are an awfully successful person- I think when your body/mind tells you to stop, it means you need a rest and you should take it. Just my two cents of course and perhaps what I want to hear!

  23. I often feel the same way. I wonder: if I give it one final push, will it put me over the top, or over the edge?

    Something that Steve Jobs said in a commencement speech comes to mind. Jobs said that you can’t connect the dots in your life looking forward, towards the future and what might have been; you can only connect them looking back, into the past. You might kick yourself now because you feel like you didn’t push yourself hard enough to succeed. In retrospect, it might be because all along, you were working toward a different goal — one that you didn’t know about before.

  24. I adore that speech and think of it often. I agree with you that maybe there’s a goal at work here that I don’t even know yet. Of course the contrarian (and perfectionist?) in me says well, you can’t connect them going forward, and you only have one life, so shouldn’t we push forward, always? xox

  25. It’s funny how we can see things in a much more nuanced way for others, isn’t it? Because when I hear you say that about the online writing course I think, oh, of course, free up other time, if it’s not speaking to you then you should listen to that … the word “quit” doesn’t enter the equation. Interesting … xox

  26. I think this is what I need to do, focus on the intention, on the impulse underneath the reaction. Hard to do, but essential, it seems. Thank you. xox

  27. I just finished my review of Ready For Air by Kate Hopper, and it ended up being partly a reflection on my own feelings of failure during the first weeks of my son’s life. You’ve continued to make me think about why I felt this way: I didn’t push myself harder to meet the goals I set for myself as a new mother. I prepared for natural childbirth and had a birth doula, and yet I ended up begging for an epidural and then had an emergency c-section. I did everything possible to prepare for breastfeeding (classes, books, etc.) and then stopped after several weeks because I couldn’t push myself through the pain. In parenthood, like in so many areas of life, it’s hard to know when to keep pushing and when something is just too much.

  28. I’m a day late here, but I just had to come back and comment. I am also also a sucker for impostor syndrome, and almost always feel that people’s praise of me is unfounded. Like you, I am acutely aware of all the ways in which I see myself fall short, whether or those ways are transparent to others. And while most of this is still true about me, I’ve loosened up on myself a bit. This year has been a phenomenally challenging one for me in personal and professional realms. And, for lack of another alternative and in the interest of metaphorical survival, I had no choice but to change my yardstick. For the first time since, I don’t know, maybe ever, I started asking myself, “What will I enjoy right now? What will make me happy? What will give me a sense of pleasure, even if not accomplishment?” And it has been such a good change for me. I have needed the break from my own standards in both acute and chronic ways. I will not maintain this change permanently, as in the long run I know that my overall happiness is inextricably linked to things bigger than “right now.” But experiencing a different paradigm for a while has been very eye opening. Only you can know your own right path, but being freed from your own judgment from time to time might be a valuable exercies.

    PS – I have always been fascinated by the idea of relative color. I.e. Is what I see as blue the same as what you see as blue? Does my indigo look like your turquoise? And so on.

  29. Lindsey, I feel like you’re talking out of my head. People think I’m disciplined too, and in some ways I am. But I always feel like I can be doing more. Writing more. Being a better mother. Eating better. Etc. I always worry that I make things to easy on myself.

  30. You do have a very uncanny ability of bringing up the very topics that resonate. I love your reflections on being kind to ourselves vs letting us off the hook. I don’t think there is the ultimate solution, just constant recalibrating, with a slow, in the moment hardly noticeable tendency to lighten up. Then at some point in our lives, maybe we’ll look back and realize we have become gentler with ourselves. That’s what I hope, anyway.

    The other thing I love about your blog is bringing together so many different people, asking the same questions. Reading the comments above makes me realize that I’m not alone in many struggles, although we might often think we are. Plus, I love reading the different takes on the problem. Jessie’s “soften your shoulders” has been my mantra for the rest of the week 🙂

    Thank you for another piece of writing that’ll stay with me.

  31. I agree with you on the constant recalibrating. For sure. And thank you so much for what you said about conversation here. I so agree with you about the power of people saying “me too” – even when we look so different on the surface, or are strangers, there is such a huge sigh of “oh, I am not alone” … at least for me. xo

  32. Oh, Lindsey, this is something I’m struggling with right now. Do I have too much on my plate? Have I committed to too much or am I just scared I won’t succeed? Do I back off or push through, push harder? One day my instinct tells me to push harder, the next I’m buckling under the weight of it all. I have to say, reading this and reading all the comments, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone. And goodness, I love your words.

  33. To me part of it is about whether you *want* to push or you feel like you *should* push — where the motivation is coming from. Sometimes it feels good, and liberating, to push through — even when that means pushing through pain or fear. And other times the urge to push through feels like it is coming from a mean martinet version of myself holding a gun to my own back. I am trying to learn to feel within myself where my motivation to drive myself harder is coming from.

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