When Trying Harder Just Isn’t Working Anymore
I’d seen the signs many times before: Hunched shoulders. Clenched fists. Heavy sighs. Apologies for not being or doing enough. I’d come to notice these cues in others—I’m a therapist after all.
But this time I was the one in need of support. I was sitting in my counseling supervisor’s office, feeling suffocated and exhausted, anxious and amped up. I thought the very fiber of my soul might give out if I tried to do or figure out one more thing.
It had been a tough week.
In reality, it had been a tough year. Most of my clients were adolescent girls or adult women, all of whom seemed to be experiencing an onslaught of heartbreak. Each day I listened to their accounts of abuse and pain, trying to help these women untangle their personal stories. At times I also calmed angry parents and soothed suicidal clients. The basic rule of being a therapist is that you should never work harder than your client, but I was breaking that rule ten times over and headed straight for burnout.
The Problem with Pushing through Pain
The truth was, I loved my job. I loved being able to come alongside my clients and guide them through the path of deep healing. But I was in a constant state of overwhelm. Having grown up in an intensely dysfunctional and chaotic family, I never fully learned how to hold the pain of others without internalizing it. My experience had taught me I wasn’t allowed to. I didn’t know how to listen to my own needs or the rhythms of my body. Consequently, when stressful and difficult weeks like this arose, I dealt with them the only way I knew how—by just trying to push through them, shaming myself in the process.
“John,” I confessed to my supervisor, “I’m so worn out and tired. It just feels like no matter what I do, it’s never enough. I feel like I’m failing my clients, like I’m not good enough to do this job.”
John, whom I deeply respected, was already a seasoned therapist. He exuded wisdom and calm and regularly reminded me it was okay to be imperfect. As tears ran down my cheeks, John leaned forward in his chair for a moment and took a breath. Then, slowly, he rested his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingers, the way I often did with my own clients.
“Listen, Aundi,” he said gently, “I’m curious about why you’re so hard on yourself. You are providing the resources your clients need, and you are incredibly empathic. You’re doing an excellent job.” He cocked his head. “What would happen if you allowed yourself to release your grip on this situation?”
The empathy in John’s voice felt soothing, and a part of me wanted to wholeheartedly embrace what he was saying. The other part of me was defensive; in fact, just considering his suggestion made my pulse race. But how will anyone be okay if I don’t care all the time? my inner critic all but screamed. If I’m not saving them, how will they survive?
John leaned in again, sensing my ambivalence. “I’m not asking you to stop caring, Aundi . . . just to change the way you are caring. What I mean is . . . what if—just for a change—instead of trying harder, you tried . . . softer?”
What Does It Mean to 'Try Softer'?
I’ve got to be honest: At first blush, John’s suggestion didn’t sound like an awesome option. Because what did it even mean? All I had ever learned was how to try harder. If I didn’t push, everything would be terrible; everything would fall apart.
At the same time, I had to face the facts: Trying harder wasn’t really working for me anymore. The strategies I had been using my entire life—hustling, overworking, overthinking, and constantly shifting to accommodate the dysfunction that surrounded me—they had kept me alive, yes, but now they were taking their toll. I felt less in control, not more; worse, not better; weary, not wise.
But the truth is, pushing isn’t always the answer. There are times when the best, healthiest, most productive thing we can do is not to try harder, but rather to try softer: to compassionately listen to our needs so we can move through pain—and ultimately life—with more gentleness and resilience.
Why We Try Harder, White-Knuckling through Life
We’ve learned to white-knuckle our way through life to armor up against pain and difficulty; we believe minimizing our wounds is the only way we’ll be loved. We try to appear successful, productive, or simply okay on the outside, even when we’re not okay on the inside. Our world overvalues productivity and others’ opinions, so we learn to ignore the messages our bodies are giving us—through our emotions and physical sensations—and instead push through our pain and pretend we have it all together. Trying harder helps us feel safe in areas of our lives that may have felt overwhelming or out of control in the past.
What’s more, we’ve been so socialized, parented, and wired to overfunction that we don’t recognize when our bodies are stressed, traumatized, and exhausted until the consequences are dire. It’s then, when anxiety and adrenaline have worn us down to a nub, that we may find ourselves depressed, exhausted, and disconnected.
How to Come Out of Survival Mode and Actually Live
I believe God is calling us to more. While none of us are exempt from pain, we can learn to come out of survival mode and actually live. And isn’t that what we all want—not to miss out on life? To have the tools, resources, and support we need to embrace the goodness? To see the people right in front of us? To live out Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves? Imagine actually experiencing tenderness toward who you are—not just tolerating or enduring your life, your family, your relationships, your body, and your career, but truly finding ways to love and honor them.
This is what God created us for. Trying softer is the path that leads to true connection and joy. It begins when we mindfully listen to what’s on the inside of us and let that influence how we look and act on the outside. It’s an intentional shift toward paying compassionate attention to our own experiences and needs. Learning to try softer is not a onetime event but a way we learn to be with ourselves.
Trying Softer is an invitation to embrace a more robust idea of what it means to be human—a person rooted in the wisdom of Jesus—to be fully alive—not because you’ll be perfect or because it will be easy, but because this is what we were made for: a living, breathing, moving, feeling, connected, embodied life. This—all of this—is your birthright.
This is the “try softer” life.
Adapted from Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode—and into a Life of Connection and Joy by Aundi Kolber, releasing from Tyndale House Publishers in January 2020.