How many of you were ever told as a child to just “make sure to give 100% in all that you do?”
Most of us? Yep, that is what I thought.
It is a statement for children and adults alike that seeks to encourage; it means well on the surface level, but is wrought with anxious undertones in practice.
In fact, this advice to “give 100% in all that you do” could potentially even be detrimental to certain individuals.
Allow me to explain.
Another counselor I once met best described it best when she said this:
No one can logistically give 100% to everything, all the time.
If you have 100% of your total effort to give, you cannot give 100% of that effort to multiple things. Maybe that is 30% given to work, 50% to your family, 20% to hobbies on any given day—but you only have 100% to give each day.
To encourage children to give 100% at everything they do—well, that is setting them up for failure, is it not? In fact, it is maybe even creating a future generation of discouraged or incredibly stressed adults, while we are at it.
Now, I know what you are thinking. What a lazy perspective, not to give your all. On the contrary! This is not a way-out from the expectation of effort. We do not have to sacrifice the importance and power of hard work, focus, and the fulfilling nature of completing a goal.
Instead, we can simply rephrase our encouragement to children (and adults, and to ourselves) to focus on enabling individuals to give the very best they have in this particular moment. Let’s shift the focus away from constant, all-encompassing achievement toward present-centered effort and recognition of one’s in-the-now experience.
Why don’t we try this instead:
“Do your best, right now, with what you have available to you in this moment.”
Less is More for Longterm Success
I was recently reading an article specifically for runners entitled Why Your Work Ethic Might be Sabotaging Your Success. I was immediately intrigued, especially at the line,
“sometimes the hardest thing to do is less” .
The writer was warning athletes of pushing too hard in a workout for the sheer sake of completing it. He urged runners to instead be mindful of your physical capacity on a day-to-day basis to avoid injury and train more safely. Simply put: harder, longer, and faster is not always better.
While the discussion was obviously geared toward physical fitness, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same concept applied on an emotional and mental level.
So of course, I dug a little deeper, and was reminded of the concept of interoceptive awareness.
Interoceptive awareness is simply defined as “awareness of sensory information” . Basically, it means that we listen to our body’s natural cues in order to regulate and adjust our thoughts, emotions, and choices as needed.
For athletes, interoceptive awareness is vitally important because it helps a person utilize the body’s natural cues to safely manage a workout according to the body’s present state. Knee feeling sticky? Certain drills may not be the best option for that day. This decision to skip such drills does not denote laziness, but instead carries a certain bodily wisdom that helps runners listen to their bodies to optimize training.
Another easy example to consider is the bodily cue to use the restroom. You observe the information your body gives you when you feel the urge to use the restroom, and then decide appropriately how to take care of yourself. It’s as simple as that.
Interoceptive awareness is a constant back and forth conversation between yourself and your body to help you move throughout different experiences and scenarios. Every time you listen and respond, your body stores that information for the next time, thus building your interoceptive awareness like a muscle. You tend to get better at it as time goes on.
Unfortunately, a significant marker of chronic stress is when a person has begun to “turn off” their interoceptive awareness, or ignore bodily cues.
If a counseling client with a taxing job tells me that they do not drink any water throughout the day because they “never feel thirsty” or do not take a break from a work project because they no longer even realize they need to use the restroom, I start to wave my big red flag. This person has, over time, turned off a natural bodily cue for the sake of productivity.
When these bodily cues are ignored over time, you can disrupt your body’s natural patterns.
This same concept rings true with mental and emotional cues that our body provides. When you refuse to take into account your body’s stress and anxiety signals, sometimes physiological symptoms can arise in response. Imagine your body saying, “you wouldn’t listen to me, so I’ll get louder in another way.”
A chiropractor or massage therapist can always tell when I’ve been internalizing work stress due to the knots in my neck and shoulders. Sometimes I may even get a migraine as a result.
But if I face that same stress and anxiety head-on and take care of my body and mental/ emotional load, I can often alleviate the physiological signs of stress before the knots and migraine knock me down to size.
This, I think, is what the author means when he says that “sometimes the hardest thing to do is less.” .
It is often second nature for us to push through seasons of chaos and stress despite our body’s screams at us to offer rest, or a screen break, or at the very least a shoulder stretch. We ignore our natural,
biological cues in order to meet deadlines and cultural pressures to “give 100% at everything, all the time.”
Maybe the answer is that it is time for each of us to redefine our “best.”
What if, in reality, your “best” was defined as what you are most capable of in this given moment, without causing yourself harm.
In a workout, what you are able to do today (your best), may be vastly different than what you did yesterday (also your best). To push through negative pain to try and hit the “best” of another day could inevitably result in injury to yourself or a teammate.
The same is true for other areas of life. Your best is different at any given moment. Your body was created to provide you ample feedback to determine what that “best” truly is. Are you listening? Or smushing down the dialogue, increasing stress and anxiety in your workload, and risking your chances of harm?
This is a concept worth considering, if you ask me.
So, what happens when we push children and young people to physical, emotional, and mental limits without offering the tool of interoceptive awareness?
They learn to ignore their interoceptive awareness in order to achieve.
A Forbes article from 2020 discusses the “Honor Roll Hangover” phenomenon, which is described as “psychological baggage” from a person’s time in school . Honor roll students, or academic achievers, it explains, learn quickly that success rests in fulfilling specific syllabus-based standards in order to build confidence and seek societal standards of achievement.
You do the work, you get the grades. You get the grades, you get the college acceptance. You get the college acceptance, you get the job and life is peachy.
Except, unfortunately, the “real world” work-life rarely continues to follow this same pattern of achievement, and these top-notch children of academia can quickly struggle in the professional workforce.
Honor Roll children who are used to following a “clear path to success” to gain “gold stars”  become taken aback when faced with real-world problems that require flexibility to overcome.
My suspicion is that, along the way, these students did not have interoceptive awareness modeled for them. They learned to subdue mental, physical, and emotional cues in order to achieve at all costs.
The good news is, we can stop the pattern for ourselves and for our children.
One thing we know is that interoceptive awareness requires practice. Instead of telling children to “give 100% at everything, always,” what if we flipped the script to still encourage them to greatness and hard work while avoiding the harm of accidentally instilling perfectionism? We can encourage them to listen to bodily and psychological cues and have an active voice in their own training and studies.
Most importantly, we must practice what we preach.
Try a quick body scan right now. Where is the tension in your body? Can you take 30 seconds to refocus your attention somewhere and take some deep breaths to relieve it? When is the last time you took a walk during lunch as an antidote to the desk job blues?
What might start happening if you listen to the cues of your body and modeling for others how to do the same? Chances are, that productivity that you are so worried about just may actually increase when your mental and physical awareness is aligned and attuned.
1. Arnold, K. D. (1995). Lives of promise: What becomes of high school valedictorians; A fourteen-year study of achievement and life choice. Jossey-Bass.
2. Gardner, M. (1995, May 25). Study tracks success of High School Valedictorians. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://www.csmonitor.com/1995/0525/25121.html
3. Hooven, C. (2018, May 28). Interoceptive awareness skills for emotion regulation: Theory and approach of mindful awareness in body-oriented therapy (MABT). Frontiers in psychology. Retrieved April 10, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5985305/
4. Lovett, R. A., Beverly, J., Hanson, M., & Byrne, C. (2022, January 19). Why your work ethic may be sabotaging your success. Outside Online. Retrieved April 13, 2022, from https://www.outsideonline.com/health/running/training-advice/running-101/dont-always-give-it-your-all/
5. Wilding, M. (2020, March 16). The surprising downside of being an overachiever. Forbes. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/melodywilding/2020/03/16/the-surprising-downside-of-being-an-overachiever/?sh=6aea238922fa