I have a school memory that has banged up against my subconcious so consistently that it has busted its way into my dreams. I’m in my school uniform, sitting at my desk with the groove for the pencil at the top edge and the shelf for books under the seat. I am in the middle of a test. It is a math test and I do not like math. I’m looking blankly at the numbers and beginning to panic, sweating in my white uniform blouse. The teacher is moving slowly up and down the aisles and pauses next to me and my empty paper. I cannot look up at her. She leans down and says softly, “Just do the best you can.” She means well, but my young ears hear pity burbling just under the surface, and my little perfectionist’s heart is rankled. It is an admission of failure. Doing my best becomes a consolation prize. It’s not the real thing and it’s never enough.
I have a friend who tells a similar story, with a twist. Whenever he turned in his homework or brought home his report card, his parents and teachers asked: “Is this the best you can do?” It’s a fair enough question – except when it’s rhetorical. My friend heard it so often he began to suspect he was unequipped for “the best.” It was a chimera. So why even try?
The notion of doing your best doesn’t stop when you hit adulthood. In my work – teaching people how to pay attention to their bodies and surroundings as a way of working through difficulties and living a fuller life – I often hear this question: “How do I know if I’m going too easy on myself, or if I’m beating myself up and trying to do more than I should? Should I try harder, or ease up?”
The only way to answer this is to look inside and be able to honestly say whether or not you are doing your best. The problem is that like so many other things in life, our perception of “best” is colored by our past experience – education, family, religion, society.
The best obstacles
If your idea of the best you can do is unrealistically high, you will beat yourself up, run yourself (and maybe others) ragged. Whatever you do will never be good enough. You will be dissatisfied and frustrated, always feeling like a failure, guilty, striving to catch up. Or you may be afraid to act because your action won’t be perfect; even so, your mind will continue racing about the thing. Your body will feel all this and crack under the strain: insomnia, fatigue, chronic pain and frequent little illnesses. Like a horse whipped too hard, you will be nervous and afraid to stop.
If your idea of the best you can do is pitched too low, you will live small, never breaking out of the limits of your reduced possibilities. Something will be lacking in terms of commitment, endurance, completion. You will tend to blame others when things don’t work out – or worse, blame life, and start to believe it’s against you. You’ll sabotage yourself. You’ll find yourself unable to enter deeply into situations, to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, to sweat and fall down and give your all. Your body will feel this and become heavy or numb with the refusal of its own energy. It will be cut off from its natural intensity, isolated, like a child who stands on the sidelines at recess and watches the others play.
In your heart of hearts
Since you are not living in a vacuum, doing your best is an elegant chemistry that involves everything around you – the environment, other people – most of which you cannot control. You must work with it and adapt. This is no place for recipes. Your best will vary from day to day, situation to situation. What is possible for you one day may not be so the next.
And yet your best has nothing to do with comparison. Your awareness of it is an inner compass, a quiet internal truth unrelated to what others have, say, or do. Sometimes your best may be externally recognized – you get a promotion, you’re first across the finish line, your book is published. But that recognition has nothing to do with whether or not you actually did your best. Only you can know, in your heart of hearts, if you are doing all you can, without punishing yourself or holding back your energy.
So how do you know if you’re doing your best? How do you know your heart of hearts? I think it involves observing your thoughts, actions, and feelings, and reflecting on them honestly. For many of us, the times we held back are easy to recall. It’s the stuff of regrets, and it’s painful. It’s also necessary to take into account, to be aware of what you don’t want to repeat.
But what about when you gave your all? I invite you to take a minute right now to think of a time when you did the best you could with what you had. Savor the memory and the feeling – even if the situation didn’t turn out as you would have liked. How does it feel in your body? Do you notice any particular sensations? Where? Is it a more general feeling? How would you describe it? This is true north on your inner compass. It’s important to remember what it feels like to be going in that direction. The more familiar you are with this sensation, the clearer you’ll be about whether you’re trying to do too much or are holding back. You will also be able to consciously choose whether or not to give yourself to something. If it’s not worth giving your best, why do it?
Your best, your honest best, is no consolation prize. It’s a gift to yourself and to the world. It is, in the words of my colleague Caspar Walsh, a beautiful thing.
A Beautiful Thing
You did a beautiful thing
That thing you made with your hands ready
Your heart open, tender
What you made out of what was given to you
The gift you returned to the woods and river
The fires you built
You did a beautiful thing
With the life you had
With the black and the gold
People changed because of you
Not by you
But because of what you did
What you gave.
The world in all its fury and black heart decay
Is a better place for you being here
And doing what you could
With what you had –
You did… a beautiful thing.
Poem used with permission of the author. You can read more about Caspar’s work here.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
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