Are you doing your best?

I love Brené Brown. For a while I called her my best friend, the best friend she didn’t know she had. Brené is a researcher on shame, vulnerability, and whole-hearted living and her writings and teachings were instrumental in some serious internal change in my life. 

I just finished her new book Rising Strong and I highly recommend it. Here’s how she describes the progression of her work through her books:

The Gifts of Imperfection – Be You
Daring Greatly – Be all in.
Rising Strong – Fall. Get up. Try again.

What a perfect description of the life of a musician.
At any rate, one section of the book struck a chord (yes, pun intended), and that is Brené’s writing about judgment. Brené frames this as a question: Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?

Her research found that those who said “No way” had higher levels of judgment of themselves and struggled with perfectionism. (She considers perfectionism to be “defeating and self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.”)
Wow, this hit home.
Several years ago I was in the midst of a battle in my body. I had serious shoulder tension for years that had escalated into pain. I knew it was emotionally based, but even though I had been in therapy on and off for a number of years, the pain and tension hadn’t gone away.
I enrolled in a program offered by my doctor for healing Tension Myostitis Syndrome, also called Mind Body Syndrome. This program has success in helping people who have real pain but the pain is from emotional sources rather than physical causes. I found it to be life-changing, and it’s where I was introduced to Brené Brown.
During this month long class, I played in the pit orchestra for a musical. I was making progress with releasing some little amounts of the shoulder pain, and I made a startling (to me) discovery: when I judged the singers and other musicians, my shoulders started hurting more; when I judged myself for every imperfection, I was more likely to judge the other performers. It all was very circular and related. I started practicing taking a step back from judging both myself and the other performers.
I started noticing the harshness with which I judged myself, and the direct connection to pain in my shoulders. The pain provided serious motivation to find a new way to interact with judgment, perfectionism, and striving.
Judgment is a double edged sword for musicians. On the one hand, we all need excellent critical analysis and problem solving skills to assess our practicing and performing. We don’t get very far without these skills, or it will cost an arm and a leg to continually pay a teacher or coach to tell us what to do.
On the other hand, what we call critical analysis is sometimes plain old mean and nasty thoughts about other performers, and about ourselves. It is analysis run amok. Haven’t we all been in musical situations where some performers constantly judge and criticize other performers?  Often behind their backs. (Aren't we sometimes that person?) And sizing up our abilities compared to others, seeking flaws in each other like heat-seeking missiles. As if finding a flaw in another performer will make us feel better about ourselves.
Instead, what if we start with the assumption that we are each doing the best we can? How does that shift the tone and perception of yourself and others? Shifting our focus from ‘perfect’ as the goal, and instead focusing on the big picture, on making music, on fulfilling our part to the very best of our abilities. And when we make mistakes, remind ourselves that we are indeed doing the very best we can.
Lest you worry that taking this approach will turn you into a lazy slob, let me assure you there is plenty of research these days showing that self-compassionate people are actually more motivated and have higher standards.
For me, participating in a musical project with this shifted paradigm leads to a much more enjoyable experience. The musical that I mentioned earlier had some real problems with it. Changing my focus to doing my job to my best ability, to make my part the best it could be, and the most enjoyable and musical, made every night a whole lot better than when I spent the evening criticizing everyone.
The title of this newsletter is "are you doing your best?". After reading through some of these thoughts, what is your answer? Did anything change for you in thinking about this question?