Doing your best seems like a pretty simple idea. But the way some people treat this seemingly straightforward concept deserves further examination.
Taken literally, doing your best means you couldn't have possibly done any better. That idea can be motivational (a coach encouraging an athlete, "Show me your best!") and at times, conciliatory ("Don't be too hard on yourself. You did your best.") In the mind of someone who leans toward perfectionism, however, the idea of doing your best can be overwhelming, draining, and lead you to feel your worst.
Perfectionism at its Best
Intellectually, most of us are aware we're only really going to excel in a few areas. Most other things, we'll be just okay at. Then there are a few tasks we'll be pretty terrible at if we're honest with ourselves.
However, the spectrum of being best, pretty good, good, okay, meh, and awful at something can get lost over time for high performers who have anxiety. For these perfectionists, everything starts to fall into two categories: "I did my best," and, "I'm not good enough."
Viewing life through this black and white lens has heavy consequences over time.
When Your Best Is Unsustainable
Many of my clients struggle with the idea that doing their best means doing their best at literally everything. This ignores the fact that we all have limits. When you don't acknowledge the very real limitations on your time and energy, you're on the fast track to exhaustion.
Doing your best on a school paper means you have to deprioritize other things while you're working on it. Being the best parent you can be might mean your work takes a back seat that day. If you are trying to be the greatest you can possibly be at all things, you are going to burn out fast.
Instead, try viewing your best as your best under the time and resource constraints you're facing. For example, instead of, "I have to do my best at this presentation," try setting realistic limitations, like, "The most time I can give myself to prepare for my presentation is two hours. After that, I have to go to my dad's birthday."
Learning to balance conflicting priorities means accepting that not everything you do will be the best you've ever done, and that is more than okay.
When Your Best Is Unattainable
Often clients struggle with defining what their best looks like for a given situation. For example, as clients make progress in therapy, I'll reflect that they seem proud of themselves. Many clients rush to separate themselves from the emotion of pride, explaining, "What I did wasn't that hard. I shouldn't be proud of that." When I press them for examples of things they would be proud of, they can't come up with an answer.
When these clients stop to really examine their expectations for themselves, it turns out there is no amount of work they could do or progress they could make that would actually meet their standards. There's no such thing as their "best." This means they're constantly telling themselves, "I'm not good enough," leading to the next consequence...
When Your Best Is Unhelpful
What happens when you hear, "You're just not good enough," every time you try something? Over time, it escalates from an uncomfortable thought to something you view as a fact. When you believe you're inherently not good enough, what's the point of trying? It feels as though you are constantly set up for failure. This leads to feeling unmotivated, having low self-esteem, and a deflated sense of self-efficacy (aka the belief you can accomplish something).
When confronted with the idea that they're being hard on themselves, clients will sometimes respond, "But I'm not good enough, so it's true. There's nothing wrong with telling myself the truth." One way to put this into perspective is having a client imagine someone walking up to a loved one and telling the loved one, "You're not good enough." Immediately most clients become very protective of their loved one and even joke that they'd become violent if someone talked to someone they cared about that way. This helps clients begin to see that they've been bullying themselves in the name of doing their best.
Unpacking Your Best
Having goals and striving to improve are important, fulfilling parts of life. But when the goals turn into weapons designed to prove how faulty you are, they become unachievable and even damaging over time. When falling short means you're bad, unworthy, and not enough, but doing your "best" isn't even realistic, you're set up to never feel successful, reinforcing the idea that you are, in fact, not enough.
Keep these ideas in mind the next time you hear your harsh inner critic point out every mistake. That's one way to slowly stop the cycle and finally feel the way you deserve to feel: like you are enough.