When It Feels Too Hard To Keep Trying: Rest or Push Harder?

by Angela Marchesani

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” ~Pema Chodron

When working toward a goal becomes difficult, it’s hard to know whether to push or take a rest.

In my early twenties, living 3,000 miles away from home as a live-in nanny in a very different lifestyle became very stressful. I quit. I felt I couldn’t adjust to it, and I also couldn’t tolerate feeling out of my element every day for months.

It was a decision I quickly regretted. The family I worked for was amazing, and as soon as I moved home I missed them—and California. I regretted giving up so soon and in a way that impacted two very special young children.

In hindsight, I realize that had I pushed harder and committed to just a few more months, things would likely have eased for me.

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how resourceful I actually was, and hovering outside of my comfort zone for so long left me feeling the urgent need to feel grounded.

Instead of finding other ways to achieve that feeling, I moved back home.

In college, I was fixated on earning high grades. I loved school and loved learning, but I felt that it only “counted” if it was acknowledged by an “A” on my final transcript.

I pushed too hard that first year, and I quickly became isolated and depressed.

By the next year I had learned that if I didn’t rest periodically, my whole life and health would suffer. And all the “A”s in the world can’t buy happiness.

I’m the world’s biggest proponent of, “Take it easy on yourself.” In my full-time work, I often advise clients to reduce their academic course load to find more balance in their lives.

With my private clients, I often urge them to drop their excess obligations to make more room for life in their lives.

When a friend calls and bemoans the fact that they’ve been working on something all day and just want to stop I say, “Go to sleep. Start fresh in the morning.”

I mean this advice, but I dole it out carefully.

And here’s why:

It only pays to stop working toward something if the efforts are jeopardizing your ability to live your life according to your “anchors” or primary values.

If you’re totally sleep-deprived, you’re not going to do the best job on that thesis anyway, and might present a finished product that isn’t an accurate reflection of your skill or passion for a field you entered with zest and commitment. Right?

But then there’s the converse:

If you stop working toward something important to you just because it’s feeling uncomfortable, you will also jeopardize your ability to live the values you profess.

When I quit my nanny job, I felt ashamed and disappointed in myself, because I had committed to the job of taking care of two children, and didn’t truly exhaust all efforts to make that happen long-term.

I know now that the point at which you most want to give up is often the time you most need to push through.

And here’s why. Change occurs when enough stress is applied to alter the form of something and set a new trajectory. Until you pass that key stress point, the efforts exerted are often not visible and in fact can be undone quite easily.

But once you pass that key point, once you push through that discomfort, you have altered the course of things. The work you’ve done has finally surpassed that stress point and made tangible, visible changes. It has also set a new course.

Once you’ve past this point, the change can’t be undone. At least not without an equal amount of effort to change it back.

In this life of “Go! Go! Go!” and “Do! Do! Do!” how can we tell when to take a rest or to push through for better results?

The Rest or Push Checklist:

  • Is this goal in line with my anchors (primary values)?
  • If I need to neglect other anchors, is that just temporary while I focus on this goal?
  • Can the other anchors recover from this temporary neglect?
  • If I quit now, will I regret it?

If you answered “Yes” to the above four questions, it may be time to push.

  • Am I feeling depressed or depleted?
  • Have others expressed concern for my well-being?
  • Can I continue with this goal in the near future without losing significant gains?
  • Has this goal served to distract me from other difficult tasks (such as dealing with relational conflict, making improvements to a situation, feeling painful emotions)?

If you answered “Yes” to those four questions, it’s probably time to rest.

So consider an area of your life where you feel this conflict.

It may be about fitness goals, professional plans, or interpersonal relationships.

Clarify the goal and check in to see where it fits into your “anchors.”

Then honestly answer the above questions. Once you do, you’ll have the clarity to apply your time and energy to the areas that most need it—including, possibly, a nap.

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