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The Art of Holding Back

The first day of school (distance learning) was this week. When I woke up, I gave myself a nice long talk and decided that my sole focus for the day would be to get the girls off to a good start – to be there with a smile when technical difficulties arose and bring calm and flexibility to help the first day go well. I structured my day to make sure I could stay focused on their needs. As the start time for their online school day neared, I pulled up a chair next to the girls’ workspace to be fully present.

Things were off to a delightful start. There were some technical glitches, of course, but I was there to offer support and help find a solution. As the morning went on and things seemed to be going well, I grabbed my phone and replied to some emails. Then an idea popped into my mind for a blog post, and I pulled out my laptop to start writing. 

I started doing what most of us do – adding tasks. Seeing what other things could be done at the same time I was attempting to be fully present for the girls. 

And then things fell apart. I was halfway through an email response that required lots of focus when Emma’s headphones stopped working. Ella couldn’t find the assignment she was supposed to be working on, which had mysteriously disappeared from her desktop. They both needed my help uploading pictures for art class. There were tears. Some of them belonged to the girls. 

At the end of the long and frustrating day, I decided a workout would be helpful. I filled a water bottle, put in my headphones, clipped my cycling shoes into my indoor spin bike, turned on the display and chose a cycling class. Some days, I go for the rides that make my lungs feel like they are on fire, and I put everything I have into each rotation of the pedals. On this day, I chose a low-impact class meant to build endurance by staying in a lower range of exertion and focusing on having control of the breath. These classes are especially tricky because even when you are feeling strong and know you can do more, you resist.

“Hold back,” the instructor began. “You may start feeling good and wanting to do more, but that is not this ride.” I felt like the instructor was speaking directly to me about my day.

It is so hard for us to stay beneath our capacity. Every day – even on days we promise ourselves to stay focused on one thing – we try to see what else we can squeeze in, what else we can do while listening to someone. We attempt to do more, even knowing that this high-level zone is a place where things break down faster and cannot be sustained. 

There is an art of holding back. I’m trying to remember that we can try do it all, but we don’t have to do it all. The more we can stay in the area in which we are in full control – on the bike or when we are trying to work on something important – the more effective we can be. 

Sometimes it takes the greatest strength we have to simply hold back.

Author: Alyssa Forcehimes, PhD

An expert in behavior change, substance use disorders and empathic communication, Dr. Alyssa Forcehimes serves as President of The Change Companies® and Train for Change Inc.® She lives in Arizona with her husband and two daughters.