How to know when to push yourself

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How do we know when to push ourselves?

How do we know when it’s time to cut ourselves some slack or take a break?

This has been a big question for me as I negotiate the swampy terrain of not only knowing when/how much to push myself but when/how much to push my kids.

I’ve been walking this thin line with one of my sons with school work.  And I’ve found it so hard knowing how much to help him, how much to get him to practice things he’s struggling with, versus when I’m putting too much emphasis on what school values (and in fact he has tons of other talents and strengths not recognised much in the classroom).

This got me thinking about the more general question — how do we know when to push ourselves? And how do we know when to cut ourselves some slack?

I teach this concept all the time in my yoga classes.  Sthira-Sukham-Asanam is the basic underlying element of all yoga postures.  It refers to the way we must find a balance between ‘sthira’, strength and stability, and ‘sukha’, ease and lightness.  Finding the balance between both elements we use strength and stability to move into a physical posture — but we don’t ‘white knuckle drive’ as my own teacher would say.  We are also able to let go of unnecessary effort and tension, look for areas to relax, find a sense of ease and lightness where we can.

When I teach this, I always emphasise the ‘sukha’, the sense of ease. The ‘Not Pushing’.

Because honestly I feel like the levels of stress I see around me is enough to convince me we are often very good at pushing ourselves, and often very poor at knowing when to relax, let go, chill out, stop trying so hard.

And yet the other side to that is…

If we never push ourselves, and in fact if we never push ourselves beyond where we think we can go…if we always stay in that comfort zone physically, emotionally, mentally…then we never grow.

Facing and overcoming challenges is the only way to earn confidence.  Pushing ourselves is how we learn the process of resilience and perseverance (which are not ‘states of mind’ but active processes).

This concept of ‘adversity as a friend’ is also common in Buddhist teachings.  The Dalai Lama has often said, “your enemies are your best spiritual teachers because their presence provides you with the opportunity to enhance and develop tolerance, patience and understanding.”  And on the death of a loved one, the Tibetans have a tradition of praying for their next life to have “not too much suffering, and not too little.”  Because they recognise that a certain amount of discomfort or dissatisfaction is what motivates us to search for wisdom.  It is often the most effective motivation to change and grow.

And yet we can also push ourselves too far.

And sometimes its difficult to know when we’re close to our edge until we’re literally running over the cliff. Just this weekend the London marathon demonstrated this — so many people pushing themselves, many learning tons about themselves and gaining massive confidence in the process.  And then there was the tragic death of the 29 year old man who collapsed at mile 22, reminding us we can absolutely push ourselves too far.

So how do we find the balance?  How do we find that combination of sthira-sukham-asanamin our own lives? How do I find that balance for my children?

When we feel like Sisyphus pushing the bolder up the mountain, how do we know when to persevere and when to just let that bolder roll back down the hill and possibly out of our lives?

I’ve got more thinking to do on this…and luckily we’re discussing this on the podcast this week.  So I’m re-reading Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way.  I’m also reading Being Boss which talks about how to find this balance in work between hustling and still enjoying life (and it’s got a different approach than a lot of the usual entrepreneurial ‘hustle hustle push it push it’ bravado).  I’m also considering Tim Galloway’s book on the inner game of tennis and how adversity can be your greatest friend.  (Any other recommendations?)

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