They say failure is the best teacher, meaning, you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Career-focused moms like me wish it was that simple, that there were just two options on the table. Truth be told, the vast majority of my experiences in both work and motherhood are neither successes nor failures; they are maddening, often disheartening, "I'm just getting by" experiences.
This past Mother's Day, as I mulled over the events of the previous week, I kept wondering which department would call to shut me down first: my company's HR department or the Department of Children & Family Services. In the preceding days, I'd forgotten a little league game, intentionally talked my daughter into skipping a Friday night soccer match, started a crockpot meal while on mute during an important conference call, convinced my parents to attend my son's DARE graduation while I traveled for business, coerced a colleague to review slides with me at the last minute, and neglected to pack cold lunches until the kids were in the car. It was a veritable master class in near-misses and half-hearted endeavors.
As a person who loves the recognition of achievement—that gold star on my homework, accolades in the company newsletter, the "Wow, you look great for having three kids" comment at the grocery store—the idea of just to getting by is tough to swallow.
This feeling is derived from unrealistic expectations of what defines success or failure, and these definitions are ingrained in us early on. From the first days of school, we learn a simple rule: If you work hard, you get an "A." It's clear the rule should change when there is more to juggle, but once the expectation has been internalized, the mental shift in one's personal aspirations can be tough.
So how am I working to change my self-appraisal from a disheartening "so-so" to a more realistic "So what?" I've developed four go-to tricks when I need to alter the narrative in my head.
1. Shake off the imposter syndrome. Have you ever had a sinking—and anxiety-producing feeling—that it's only a matter of time before you're exposed as a fraud as both a parent and/or professional? You're not alone. Most everybody, at some point, latches onto the idea that everyone else around them is crushing it while they're barely keeping their head above the waves. What can you do when these thoughts rear their ugly head? I've found that writing down lists of my achievements, skills, and successes reveals in a tangible way that I've already proven I'm not a fraud. It's easier to kick the impostor syndrome to the curb when you present yourself with evidence that you ARE achieving and there’s actually no risk of being exposed as a fraud.
2. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good. This adage has saved me from mental anguish too many times to count. When I couldn't get out of bed for that Monday morning workout; when I wanted to throw in the towel because I didn't get a working group to agree on an initiative; when I couldn't get my teenager to understand the value of clean hair...I could go on and on, but you get the point.
The trick here is not to take your ball and go home, but to hang in there. Make your goal to win the war, not the battle. Okay, so you didn't have the energy for a Monday workout, well you'll have the opportunity the next day. It's called a Tuesday workout. If you couldn't get immediate consensus within your working group, schedule a follow-up meeting. And, as far as a teenager's hair goes, there's always dry shampoo. Look, it all works out in the end. You're good—you're very good—but, you're not perfect; none of us are.
3. Commiserate with your tribe. It's easy to think I'm alone in my pursuit of success via the well-traveled route of swinging from vine to vine. But when I surround myself with a tribe—other people who have similar professional and personal goals—I quickly discover they are managing the same challenges and feelings. Find your tribe and be forthcoming when you spend time with your fellow members. Honesty binds the tribe together and encourages others within the group to open up and share their stories. Hearing and understanding that you're not flying solo can have a significant impact on your emotional well-being.
4. Rethink what success looks like. A friend recently reminded me that: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." I have a tendency to count my lackluster moments as failures, never taking into account the things that other people might see as successes. So what if I didn't implement that "next level" use case of a software product my company licensed. My brain said, "Job opening! She's a hot mess," never considering the twenty great ways I DID use the software that resulted in improvements for my business. When I fed my kids random leftovers for supper last Thursday night, my head screamed, "Failure: hack job of a mom!" But what about Monday and Tuesday when I got plant-based dinners on the table, folded laundry, AND drove carpool? Don't these things count as wins? It can be challenging to see the little successes when the slips seem so glaring, but you have to recognize them, and you do that by taking a step back and rethinking the concept of success. To ignore the small victories is to feed the fire of feeling sub-par.
So the next time you send one of the kids to school with a sodium-filled Lunchable, or you quietly slip into a meeting 10 minutes late, remember that sometimes just getting by is okay. Concentrate on where you're going and how you're going to get there. Take time to express gratitude for the people that help you along the way: your friends, your family, your coworkers, and most importantly, yourself. Trust me: being so-so never felt so good.
About the AuthorMore Content by Nicole Dingley