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Smell the Coffee: Shifting into a lower gear

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was one of those phrases that stuck. It wasn't even aimed my direction, but hit anyway.

I was in grade school at the time. Third grade. Parent-teacher conferences. Privacy wasn't the requirement then that it is now, so my parents and I were only a few desks away as the teacher told this intelligent yet rambunctious boy that he wasn't living up to his potential.

All these years later, I still remember his name. Can still remember how his head dropped in shame, how he looked over at me to see if I'd heard. Looked pained when he saw that I had.

I thought so highly of him. He was quick. Smart. Funny. He raised his hand first and read ahead and knew tricks for memorizing multiplication tables. But our teacher thought that wasn't enough. Saw that he could do more. She could see his potential, and apparently he wasn't anywhere close.

Even though it wasn't her assessment of me, it attached itself anyway. I was determined to make certain no one ever said that about me.

It was said anyway. A lot.

Not by others. By me.

I could seldom live up to what I saw as my potential. When I slacked off, I knew it. When I didn't give it my all -- even if what I produced was impressive -- it still disappointed me because I could almost always see how I could've done it better. Making matters worse were those times I actually did hit my limit, when I pushed myself to the point of knowing there was no further to go.

An early for-instance: I ran track in high school, the second runner on a four-person mile relay team. The moment that baton would hit the palm of my hand, I lived up to my potential, pushing myself so hard that once I handed the stick off to the next runner, I'd wobble off into the grass and pass out (or darn near).

I loved it. Loved that I could push myself to that limit. It was intoxicating. Made me feel proud. It proved there was no physical way I could've done more.

When I was in my 20s, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, refinished antiques, made a variety of crafts, and taught myself how to write stories. At that same time, I was learning all I could about construction so I could design and build a house. Which I did. I never stopped. I was exhausted and stressed, but knew I was riding at the edge of my potential, so I was generally OK with myself.

Then my daughter's arrival brought a whole new potential to reach, that of SuperMom. I was going to hand-sew Halloween costumes and hold wildly creative birthday parties and decorate the most adorable playroom. I would be the best homeroom mother, Girl Scout troop leader and bake sale organizer who ever lived.

But life wouldn't cooperate. So much piled on that I couldn't manage a fraction of what I intended. Not only that, but I could no longer meet my self-imposed markers in nearly any other area. I fell short more times than an intact Chihuahua in a field of Great Danes.

And I beat myself up something fierce.

One of my closest friends, Susan Crumley, heard my complaints enough times that when she ran across a blog post on the subject, she sent me a link.

According to the post by Rachel Marie Martin (http://rachelmariemartin.blogspot.com), "I read this article in the New York Times about the pressure on moms to look a certain way after they give birth. And then? Then, we're to be ultra creative, crafty, humorous, happy, chipper, up before dawn, to sleep after dark, with our sinks shined, and the laundry folded, and tomorrow's breakfast in the crockpot, with tomorrow's dinner (pulled from our once-a-month cooking) thawing in the fridge, while we work out for 20 minutes on odd days and 40 minutes on even days, and our hair is always done, we're makeup ready, our fridges are stocked, and the craft closet bursting with ideas for that quick perfect afternoon art project."

All these self-imposed and society-imposed pressures can leave a person feeling like a failure, but what the blog post recommended hardly seemed to make sense.

She said to slow down.

It seems insane to think that when there's already too much to do the answer can be to slow down. Yet along with doing less, she suggests making an effort to notice more, pay attention to each little thing that's achieved, especially all those little time-eaters that can munch up a day.

I decided to give it a try. Instead of continuing to beat myself up for not getting anywhere near my potential, I'm going to unplug for a week. I'm disconnecting from the Internet and turning off the cell and ignoring the news. I'm going to do nothing for a week but enjoy myself.

After so many years, pushing has become second nature, but I'm going to make a serious effort to cut myself some slack. I'm going to force myself to sit still on that porch I worked so hard to fix up. I'm going to read books bought for enjoyment rather than research. Going to go for actual walks, rather than laps.

And to reframe my potential into one that's kinder to me.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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