Lower the Bar and Move Forward

banner image

As a therapist, I’ve met a wide variety of people, with an equally wide variety of problems that they’re trying to solve. Some are trying to improve their relationships, reconcile trauma, make career changes, learn how to have uncomfortable conversations, or are simply trying to figure out why life isn’t working out the way they would like it to.

It can be difficult to see commonalities between a wide array of subjective experiences, especially when the focus is on the experience itself. Coincidentally, my job as a therapist is to focus on that very thing. So how do we develop some sort of system of approach, that may be applied to our problems, when they’re all so different?

Part of what I do, as a therapist, is pull my scope of focus out from the experience far enough that I can only see themes. I see struggles with emotional regulation, distress tolerance, confidence, authenticity, articulation, trust, and being able to say “no.” I also compare what I see across all my clients; and look for thematic patterns. Within those, I look for points of failure. Why are they struggling to achieve their desired results? Why, and where, in the journey from Point A to Point B, does the space between sometimes become so daunting, unmanageable, and even oppressive?

While an individual’s problems and related struggles are unique, I rather consistently see a common theme: unrealistic expectations, relative to the rate at which they would like to see positive change. They set the bar too high. While I understand this isn’t exactly a novel concept, I do think it’s an important one.

Consider children for a moment. They will generally be resistant to learning new skills and accepting new responsibility. I have a three-year-old son, whose current favorite phrases are “I can’t” and “I don’t know how.” He also likes to use them when asked to do things he’s established he’s very capable of doing. So, what should I do?

I can set my expectations for him where I would ultimately like them to be and increase the probability that I’m going to watch him fail time and time again. But that would likely do quite a bit of harm to his resilience, confidence, self-image, and several other important parts of his character. If done consistently, I’d probably see a long-term decline in his initiative, ambition, moralization, interest, enthusiasm, confidence, and self-esteem. He’d internalize the idea that he can’t, that he doesn’t know how; largely because that’s what the evidence of his experiences would suggest.

So, I lower the bar for him. Instead of expecting him to pay attention to something for as long as I would like him to, I pay attention to how long he’s capable of focusing. Then I make a game of getting him to focus just a little bit longer than that and pay him some positive attention for doing it. From my perspective, the results are incremental, seemingly trivial steps, toward desirable change. But for him, they’re consistent experiences of success, which seem to be the stairway out of the morass of demoralization and self-pity. He learns that he can. He learns that even if he doesn’t know, he can figure it out. He learns (slowly) that some of the fundamental components of successful adult functioning are persistence, consistency, ambition, and a little bit of struggle.

So how does this apply to us? Because adult dilemmas tend to be more subtle and enigmatic than those encountered by toddlers, perhaps we expect too much of ourselves, too quickly. Maybe we don’t recognize that the person we’re trying to emulate had years to develop skills we hadn’t had the opportunity to (or didn’t even know we were going to need), that lets them do something that makes us stumble. Why would I expect to be able to keep up with the body builder at the gym, when I haven’t been there in years? If I’ve never tried to control my emotions, why would I set my expectations so high as to say I’m never going to get angry again? I’d be setting myself up for repeated disappointment. And depending on what my tolerance for failure is, it’s likely I’d eventually stop trying.

I’m an advocate for identifying an individual’s current skill sets, relative to the goals they would like to achieve. I also believe in lowering the bar enough that there’s absolutely zero threat of failure, then raising it just a little. Changing one’s expectations for growth and improvement, relative to their current competencies and capacities, allows for long term, meaningful positive change. It’s a scalable solution. It works in low-risk situations, as well as high. It also works across multiple dimensions of life, be it the deepening of interpersonal relationships, the development of professional or academic competencies, physical improvement, or personal growth.

Take a moment to consider how people manage to consistently improve at the gym. They determine (usually through trial and error) what they’re able to lift without having to worry about failure. They exceed that amount, slightly. Then they rest. Someone who wants to learn how to better function under stress will purposefully and voluntarily put themselves under slightly more stress than normal, pay attention to when they get tired, disengage, and then rest.

If you are struggling finding the growth you’re looking for, consider lowering the bar. It’s not an act of failure. It’s an act of strength. It requires self-awareness, perspective, planning, persistence, consistency, patience, and quite frequently, a healthy dose of humility. It also helps to remember that there’s a little toddler in all of us, who’s afraid of uncertainty. It’s our responsibility to support and encourage them; to let them know that “they can.”