Giving Up, In A Good Way

Massive wall of water, suspended. Narrow space of dry ground, an alley through the sea. I am standing on a ladder in the sand, leaning against the liquid wall. I am frantically laying tiles on the water, one little square at a time, trying to hold it up, reinforce it. I am madly laying the tiles, covering up just a few feet of this massive surface that stretches on for miles. Suddenly, I stop. There is no need for me to cover the water, to build a wall against a wall. God has already parted the sea.

This recent dream pretty much sums up the pickle I’ve been in lately. I am feeling immeasurably better since my last post. I have reoriented myself internally and, though I am just as busy, I am far less stressed out.

I realized that I have been suffering from a severe case of trying too hard. Indeed, trying too hard seems to be at the root of much of my longstanding anxiety. I have a habit of constantly trying: trying to be polite; trying to be good; trying to be perfect. I try at everything. I try hard in school, work, relationships, life. I try hard in my spiritual practice. I try hard, very hard, to relax (what an oxymoron!).

There is a hilarious irony underlying all this, in as much as trying actually undermines both being and doing. This stressed out, effortful trying is an expression of basic fear. It communicates a fundamental lack of trust in the world and in oneself. Far from improving one’s performance or helping one to meet goals, trying diverts energy, corrodes calm, and goes against the flow of life. All in all, trying makes action inferior, cramped, inhibited, uninspired, and it is incompatible with wellbeing.

So I have stopped trying. I am not trying to be a good student, counselor, partner, friend or employee; I am not trying to be healthy, happy, or perfect; I am not trying to relax, be present or meditate.

Quitting trying feels like a great big trust fall in which I am both the one falling and the one catching myself. I feel I am just sitting back and watching the actions of the mysterious intelligence I call myself. With no effort whatsoever, I do all the things I need to do, know all that I need to know, and more than that. Words just come out of my mouth spontaneously, and they’re often very appropriate words; I walk out of my house and directly to my workplace, somehow knowing the way. It’s amazing. And it really underscores just how little good trying does me. It seems I can completely stop trying and, far from my fears of my life crumbling into a twisted mess of pain, the only immediate consequence is that I feel a lot better.

I am still doing. I go about my day; I attend to the tasks that greet me. When tension and anxiety arise I remind myself: I am not trying. I am not trying to do an excellent perfect job at this or that, so if I screw up, if it doesn’t turn out right somehow, what’s the big deal? At the same time, I am not trying to be a super present spiritual person, so if I am worried and preoccupied, who cares? I’m not trying to do or be anything in particular–so whatever I’m doing and being is fine.


  1. Lesboi

    It is liberating to surrender to imperfection and failure. I had a huge fear of failure at your age that drove me straight into depression and anxiety. Letting go of my heavy expectations on myself has been so helpful. It’s good that you’re learning this now instead of 20 years from now. Fist bump!

  2. Jamie Ray

    I don’t know if you’ve studied D. W. Winnicott in social work school, or if you are familiar with his concept of “good enough” – in terms of parenting.
    But basically you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have a contingency plan for every possible outcome, you don’t have to protect everyone from any discomfort.

  3. Kris

    Thanks for this post. It was a nudge to me to again try and remember that “good enough” Jamie refers to. Trying to be perfect is setting yourself up for failure.

  4. Tea With Ess

    This reminds me of one of the things I always say to the students I meet. “Good enough is perfect”.
    The other one is “shit happens and then we die”. I’ve repeated them so many times over the years that I think I’m starting to really be live and implement it in my life now. Starting anyway…

  5. genderneutral

    What a relief!! Since we are sharing stories, I once was doing a co-therapy session with a Gestalt master working with a teen. the teen said “I will try”. My co-facilitator (CF) pointed to a pen on the table and said :try picking up the pen.” The kid proceeded to pick up the pen. CF said “you picked up the pen, you didn’t try…. so try to pick up the pen.” At some point there is this hover over the pen, neither doing nor not doing stuck in the middle. Takes a lot more effort really. I use this all the time now with clients and believe wholeheartedly in effortless being. Keep on!!

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