Are You Holding Yourself to an Impossible Standard?

Find out how to forgive yourself by following these tips.

I am a thoroughly organized person. I pride myself on keeping a clean email inbox — both at work and in my personal account. I have a running grocery list going all the time to decrease the likelihood of forgetting to pick up a needed item. I track expenses, bill payments, and savings in a multi-tabbed budget spreadsheet and have literally never been late paying a bill.

I love finding habits and routines that help me manage life calmly and smoothly, yet things still fall through the cracks. The question is, then, how to honestly approach the times I’ve fallen short while not beating myself up too much. It’s a tough line to walk, with a lot at stake. If I’m not honest enough, I risk becoming selfish and unresponsive to people I care about. If I beat myself up too much, I risk losing confidence in my sense of self and where I stand with others. So here are some thoughts on how I’ve tried to balance these two dangers, and find a path to authenticity.

While my organization skills help me cover a lot of important tasks for my family and household, not everything in life can be sorted and streamlined into such routines. Making social plans with family or friends takes a lot of subjective planning that often can’t be scripted out. Remembering birthdays and then preparing gifts and personal notes takes new creativity each time. Being attentive to my wife, my daughters, and others around me looks different every day. And especially when I mess up and fail to do something for my kids or my wife, it can really eat me alive.

I find peace and calm in learning how to do something, building a system for doing it well, and utilizing and adjusting that system to work optimally. Relationships aren’t like that — and can’t be — so I tend to struggle more in this area than with tasks I can manage. I often have to face the reality that I’ve fallen short: that I haven’t communicated fully with my wife, that I forgot to check a date for plans with all the right family members, that I went to attend to something I wanted to do without considering my family’s needs at that moment. 

These shortcomings leave me feeling hollowed-out and lost because the resolution isn’t discoverable through a known and systematized process. Instead, I have to navigate the less-clear course of apology, listening, and dialogue.

My temptation in these moments is to get sullen. If the interaction where I messed up is ongoing, I can get very quiet or struggle to say much in reply. When I’m able to shift gears, I’d rather go do a task-oriented process that’s disconnected from my mistake. It’s not that I don’t want to deal with my mess-up; it’s that I want to do something predictable to reset myself. Until then, I can really beat myself up. The interim is a cloudy, flustered state. I struggle to process, and I end up getting down on myself.

What usually gets me back on the right track is finding some perspective on the situation and my role in it. I don’t try to rationalize a free pass for myself. Rather, I try to slow down to pick apart my missteps and affirm the places where I had the right intention. Was I trying to communicate? Was I considering others? Did I make a good effort? When I was, I try hard to give myself some credit.

Once I’ve found some good, I do also look for where I fell short. Whom did I forget to talk to? What details or questions did I leave out? Was I being lazy, half-hearted, or obligatory? It helps me to separate out the shortcomings in my execution from my underlying approach. When my heart is in the right place but I just don’t cover everything I need to cover, then I can find better peace and can more easily find a constructive way forward.

While I can’t systematize this stuff, I can embrace my personality and try to use it reflectively and humbly to learn and grow. I can find ways to adjust for next time. I can learn that certain things are necessary and must be done more authentically. I can be honest about the times when I owe apologies to certain people for certain things. Apologies and forgiveness are not moments of weakness but rather opportunities for strength and health.

When I’m able to settle myself into this sort of self-reflection, I feel lighter, happier, and definitely more peaceful. There’s potentially a lot of freedom and growth in finding you have many of the right intentions behind your words and actions, but perhaps are still lacking in how best to act upon them. Being able to rework my self-scrutiny in a process like this helps me still be myself, but in a way that balances leniency and challenge and points me toward growth.

Thomas Merton, a monk and theologian, put it this way in prayer: “The fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” I don’t have all the answers, and I have to accept that my goal shouldn’t be perfection, but rather faithfulness. If my desire to do right and love myself and others is alive and well, I can keep working through how to express that better in my actions and feel good about that earnest process.

Merton’s prayer concludes, “I hope I have that desire to do right in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

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