Is it possible to let that go? Is there someone else who can help you? Could you defer it for a week? To each of these queries and other similar ones, Mary gave a firm shake of the head and an even firmer “no”. This was a pattern. Our sessions had a real “groundhog day” feel to them. Mary would arrive looking harassed and tired, tell me how frantic her week had been and how many things there were still to do. We tried problem solving and planning, prioritising and all manner of productivity hacks. Nothing shifted.
Mary’s struggle was also too familiar. She reminded me of many other high-achieving people I have worked with who had sought help for exhaustion, or health difficulties or burnout. One of their hallmarks is seemingly endless resources of grit. American psychologist Angela Duckworth is well known for her research on the phenomenon of grit: Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. Her studies indicate that grit is more predictive of success and achievement in areas like education and business than intelligence or natural ability.
Greater grit is associated with people sticking it out through difficult periods and staying longer in a job. Interestingly, research also indicates that those with higher grit are happier and more satisfied with their lives. This finding certainly didn’t hold true for Mary.
Is there a downside to too much grit?
A 2015 study found that people with high levels of grit often persist with difficult tasks to their own detriment. Participants had to solve as many puzzles as they could – but some of the puzzles were unsolvable. Grittier individuals spent more time attempting to solve unsolvable puzzles and solved fewer overall than their less gritty counterparts.
The researchers’ conclusion?
There is value in knowing when to quit. If you have too much grit, gently check in with yourself. Is this useful for me? When is it not? Discussing this knowledge at an intellectual level is one thing. Translating it into a felt sense that some change is possible is much harder.
One of the shifts in my work with Mary came after a good discussion about strengths and vulnerabilities. Often we use our strengths to protect ourselves from experiencing our vulnerabilities. Perhaps I over-work to keep feelings of vulnerability at bay, or book myself up with social engagements to avoid noticing I’m feeling alone. It’s smart coping, but it has a downside. Overusing strengths can mean we can rely on them too much, or use them too often, or miss noticing that they are not so helpful any more. Mary’s grit was definitely a strength and it was definitely over used.
Gently, to make sure we didn’t trigger too much emotional distress, we brainstormed what the grit might be protecting her from. Mary’s protections again reminded me of other high achievers: protecting her from asking for help; protecting her from feeling vulnerable or not in control; protecting her from feeling that she had somehow failed if she didn’t nail every challenge.
Another important insight was helping Mary to recognise that she is living and working in an environment that reinforces grit. Our western culture celebrates the qualities of persistence and striving. We love stories of people triumphing over adversity of all kinds. We are also quick to criticise anyone who appears to “give up”. The great basketball player Michael Jordan declared:
“If you quit once it becomes a habit. Never quit.”
Not persevering is seen as the “soft option” or taking the easy road out. For Mary, moving away from too much grit then needed to be an individual journey but also a shared experience. Another young woman I worked with who was a successful athlete gave a presentation on grit to her team and coaches to spark better conversations about persevering and also recovery, when to push and when to pause. When we speak freely about our struggles with family, colleagues and friends, we are better able to identify when someone else, or ourselves, might need a gentle nudge towards pausing instead of pushing. This means we don’t need to walk the path alone.
We know from psychological research that we are more likely to succeed and lift our wellbeing with new behaviours if we seek to “add” rather than eliminate (ie set ourselves an “approach” goal rather than an “avoidance” goal). Supporting Mary to practise some active “letting go” , asking for help, learning to ease up on how much she could get done in a day, and to find new hobbies that are more about experiences and being rather than achievements all helped to create some small shifts. And my athlete pulled back from competitions for a period of time to study and have more time with friends. When she returned, her form and performance were better than ever.
If you have too much grit, I hope reading this gives you permission to gently check in with yourself (and maybe others). Is this useful for me? When is it not? What else could I do instead? And what other strategies might I learn that enhance my wellbeing rather than deplete it?
clinical psychologist and CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing
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