The Doctrine of Enough

So, the past couple days I’ve been focused on baby steps; instead of taking huge large swings at enormous goals that sound good in my head, I figured it was worth a try to reverse the equation, especially since big swings weren’t getting me anywhere. In fact, I was regressing. It might as well be a four-letter word. But baby-steps is only half of the story–I guess that’s the strategy. What I really needed to adopt was a new mindset, a new perspective on how to approach my day to day. I’m calling that The Doctrine of Enough.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been considered by others and, eventually, my own self as a high achiever. As far back as my memory goes, to the point I consider it may be part of my most foundational identity, it’s so engrained, the idea of doing less than excellent has been a completely foreign, intolerable concept. I was always good at school, at being brave, figuring things out for myself, and just generally excelling. I had an aptitude for a lot of things that are treasured early on: reading ability, the ability to relate to others, athletic ability. When I didn’t naturally excel at something, I put in the hours to make it look natural. That’s they key, I think, to my current burnout. I hid the fact that I worked hard, mostly because I just didn’t need the accolades to do it on my own, and I think I gave the impression that I could just do everything and could be counted on to do that everything well.

Let me demonstrate with a story that, to this day, best illustrates my point: When I was a junior planning my classes for senior year in high school, it was crystal clear to me that math, at that point in my life, was not a natural aptitude. I just could not figure out what was going on. As my science classes got harder and required more math that I couldn’t really do, I started to see the forest for the trees–I was going to be a Humanities kinda girl. So, instead of killing myself in Senior year with AP calculus or even honors calculus, I signed up for regular math and a regular science class, next to AP classes in everything that involved more reading–government, history, literature, etc. Lo and behold, when I received my schedule for senior year, it had AP Physics and AP Calculus on it. The registrar at my HS questioned my choices, conferred with the Dean, and both agreed I should be in the upper-level classes and wouldn’t hear no for an answer. So I took them…and got A’s.

This is how my whole life has gone…until it stopped going that way. Assuming a PhD would be the height of achievement for me, I did that. It wasn’t easy, in fact it scarred me in many ways. But I sit here with that degree today. It was not nor did it feel like the height of achievement. It felt like day-after-day, brutal failure. It felt like a real loss of myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the death knell of my Achiever self. It taught me that Achieving means nothing as an end unto itself. And it was the last time I’d ever do that to myself.

For six years I’ve been stumbling through recovering. And I’ve done that in the most typical of achiever ways: I’ve taken on more work, I’ve buried myself in deadlines and details, I’ve adopted causes that maybe should have been left to die, I’ve tried to implement incredibly restrictive weight loss and eating plans, I’ve stressed out my adrenals and kidneys. I’ve burned myself out. And the world has burned me out further, what with the last presidential administration and now COVID-19. Up until November, I desperately searched for an exit ramp, just to catch my breath. I didn’t realize yet I was a recovering overachiever. Who knew it would be an instagram-inspired late night purchase of a random eating plan that would make me reconsider everything.

There’s more to this story that I’ll share in due time but basically the eating plan said that in order to heal my relationship with food and right my weight sustainably, it was the mind that had to change. The biggest strategy: plan consistently and be satisfied with enough.

Wait, what. What does “enough” even mean.

I really stopped in my tracks. I don’t think I’ve ever considered the importance of asking and embracing the idea that all we need is just enough and not the most of everything we can possible drag from it. My own standards had become way too impossibly high. My own expectations for myself had grown inhumanely unwieldy. I wasn’t a failure or lacking success. The fact was that my brain had completely hijacked the idea of what reasonable success could and should look like. Success became an impossible reality: impossible perfection, impossible levels of achievement, impossible levels of sacrifice, impossible levels of commitment or devotion. I had completely lost the sense of myself as having limits. My body knew I had them, my heart knew I had them, and my brain just kept scheduling impossible things.

For about two days at the beginning of this plan, I tried out the Doctrine of Enough which was a mental exercise that goes something like this. I’d run these ideas through my head on a loop: Enough is success. Eating enough and not feeling restricted is enough. Feeling satisfied but not overstuffed is enough and ergo, success. Working a reasonable number of hours is enough and ergo, success. Trying my best regardless of the outcome will be enough, and ergo success. Resting enough is success. Being okay and not great is enough, and ergo success. Saving enough money and resources is enough, and ergo success. Doing what you can is enough, and ergo success.

In some ways, I know what I was doing. The tags were still on but I was testing this framework in real life: could I accept this doctrine of fine, which for years was my most favorite, most hated four letter word? The emphatic response at a cellular level was YES. Those trial days I slept better than I have in years. I ate less and felt no stress about food. Food cravings slowly disappeared. My clothes seemed to fit better. I naturally drank enough water everyday, a struggle that had been real for months. My anxiety levels were measurably lower. I took naps. I talked with friends and maybe even laughed. My mind still wanted to judge it, but all other feedback was insanely positive. So I couldn’t ignore it. It would, joyfully, be my way forward.

This is the doctrine I’m talking about when I say “baby steps.” In some ways, it’s a real regression, a move backwards from my impossible days of impossible productivity at all costs. Achieving has become a huge part of my identity as an adult. Leaving it behind for something so different is hard. I’ve been addicted to Achievement and it’s energy patterns for so long–that rush of adrenaline when you do manage to accomplish something superhuman is enthralling. But it’s also equally lethal in the amount of depravation required to make it work. The Doctrine of Enough is nourishing in multiple ways, ways I did not even realize were vitally important until burnout really took hold and entire areas of my life were sooty and charred…like my psyche.

It is definitely what will be an indefinite process of baby steps. I don’t know how long this phase will last. But it feels good to live here for now.

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