I often write here about how pushing ourselves too hard for too long can result in frustration, exhaustion, and burnout. (Which, ironically, slows us waayyyy down, and we’re usually pushing ourselves because we believe we need to go faster!)
A client said to me a while back, “But how do I know the difference between pushing myself to get something done and making enough effort to get it done? They feel the same to me.”
I totally hear this. Most of us have been raised to believe that pushing ourselves hard is some sort of virtue, and that pushing ourselves is simply necessary in order to achieve something.
I used to believe this, and it had much to do with being disconnected from my body and emotions and not recognizing what was true for me until I was exhausted (or sick).
I was all about ignoring the subtleties that tuned me in to what was happening for me.
In fact, I was so good at ignoring my body and my emotions that when I did start getting quiet enough to tune into them, I thought something was really wrong with me.
I became acutely aware of every physical sensation, every ping of hunger, every gentle sadness. I had bulldozed over my inner world for so long by pushing myself that when I started to tune into it, it felt very strange. It was like turning up the light in a room that had previously been dim.
Over time, as I began to gain more self-awareness, I realized there was not just “one mode” of moving through the world — there were actually many flavors of “getting things done.”
Pushing hard wasn’t the only way. I could choose it, for sure, but I discovered over time that doing so was not the kindest, or most effective, path for me.
There are so many ways “staying the course” can look and feel, whether we’re talking about a project that’s important to us or something else we want to stick with through the end.
And the key here is to decide what kind of relationship we want to have with this thing, and with ourselves.
Part of this is choosing language that resonates with how we want to feel. If you don’t want to feel exhausted at the end of the day, it might be best not to say “I really need to push myself today.” (I’ll point out here that some people truly like the feeling of pushing themselves! Even for them, though, there’s a point where it’s too much pushing, not enough allowing, not enough being — and it’s important to know the difference for yourself.)
What I shared with my client is the difference, for me, between pushing and tenacity.
Tenacity, for me, feels like hanging in there with something just long enough to stretch myself for the day, and continuing to show up and do that for the long haul. It’s like stretching a rubber band just enough to give it tension — but not so much that it snaps back or breaks.
We could also think of this as the commitment to keep showing up because we want and choose to show up. Do you remember being pushed to do something as a kid? Why was that person pushing you? Because they wanted you to do something you didn’t want to do, no doubt.
When you want to do something — even if that something is uncomfortable — embracing inner tenacity helps you remember you want to do this, and you will. But since there’s no pushing involved, you’re less likely to trigger that opposing force that says “No! I won’t do it!”
When we look at hanging in there with a project for the long haul, we can see that our energy will naturally ebb and flow — on some days, we’ll have more available to us than on others. Sometimes, hanging in there for the long haul might look like resting more. Sometimes, it might mean working on something just that little bit longer.
If we can pay attention to our body sensations and our emotions, we’ll start to understand what “enough for the day” feels like for us.
This is something we learn and refine over time. It’s life’s work for some of us. And that is a good thing! We will never “arrive” — there will always be more to learn about ourselves. If we push ourselves to “arrive” as fast as we can, we’ll simply end up in burnout, with the realization that “arriving once and for all” is an illusion. There’s no “there” there.
Ways to differentiate tenacity from pushing:
• There’s a “deliciousness” to tenacity. It’s stretching you, like when you use muscles you haven’t before, but you’re not collapsing.
• If you feel “shut down” (or want to shut down), you’ve probably been pushing. Remember that if someone physically pushes you, it’s a reflex to either push back, flee the scene, or freeze because you’re so stunned. All of that is tremendously rough on the nervous system, particularly if it happens again and again.
• When you are tenacious, you quit while you’re ahead. You end for the day feeling alert, maybe slightly used up, but not so used up that you want to avoid your project tomorrow. You’ve used up a good bit of energy, but you feel like there’s more where that came from rather than “totally wiped out.”
• If you sense a lot of inner conflict, like you’ve got one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake, you’ve probably crossed over into “push mode.” When we’re tenacious, we stay aligned with a certain lightness. It doesn’t feel like a slog.
Really getting this difference is not an intellectual exercise — don’t let your mind tell you what’s “enough” for the day. It’s a visceral thing, and it takes practice. Twenty-plus years of learning here for me and I still overdo it at times, still get caught.
So I need to keep checking in with myself, notice what works for me and what doesn’t, notice where I’m getting sucked into what I think I “should” do rather than what feels truly supportive and effective for me.
What do you notice about the different between pushing and tenacity for you? Is it subtle, or more pronounced? I’d love to hear from you.
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