Can We Still Be Good Enough If We Don’t Overcompensate?


Art by @daltmejd via @hello_artists

I recently told a girlfriend that the only way I can think to describe how I currently feel––personally and professionally––is that I am going up an escalator the wrong way. I am simply moving, which in theory is cause for salute because it’s action, but I feel like I’m always falling short despite my efforts. While it’s a funny concept to visualize, it had me thinking: Why isn’t the movement enough? Why must we always feel the need to overcompensate, simply to meet the minimum requirements?

Here’s the thing: If we really unpacked that question, we may be channeling clear back to childhood scenarios. We all have layers that create the fabric of who and why we become the way we are, but rather than diving deep into that rabbit hole, let’s make this more digestible and access the current climate. 

The need to go above and beyond in order to meet the bare minimum––in relationships, health, and work––has been a soft but constant crepitation in my mind for as long as I can remember. It wasn’t until recently that I realized in therapy that much of my behaviors are not just “character traits” but instead reflections of my OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder could very well also stand for Overcompensating Disorder, as far as my own experience has been concerned. Some of these behaviors/beliefs looked like (but were not limited to): checking my memory card holder three times before shooting a wedding because if I didn’t, all future photos would be deleted. Re-reading texts/emails in different tones in my head, as to prepare myself for any way in which it could be interpreted, which might negate my initial intent behind it. Staying three extra hours to shoot a wedding but not charging for the extra time, in order to make sure the resulting library of photos would be “perfect.”

These are specific, tangible examples, but in actuality, these patterns were also woven into my everyday thinking. It wasn’t until my therapist challenged me by asking me to think of the worst-case scenario in each example that I realized all the things I was doing to try to “prevent” them. At the end of the day, I realized that every behavior—every time I went above and beyond what was required of me—was rooted in a fear of disappointing someone else or myself. I was trying to have a grasp on the ever-elusive thing that is control. I was trying to brace for any potential crash landing, and the overcompensating behaviors were the parachute.

I realized that every behavior—every time I went above and beyond what was required of me—was rooted in a fear of disappointing someone else or myself. I was trying to have a grasp on the ever-elusive thing that is control. I was trying to brace for any potential crash landing, and the overcompensating behaviors were the parachute.

My career, and all the time I put into it, had become the central focus of my life. It wasn’t until only recently, when a dear friend taught me the basics of knitting, that it hit me: I don’t even think I currently have a hobby. Or at least, one that I haven’t turned into work.

The foreboding tone that (usually unintentionally) makes its way into our daily lexicon about what we need to show up as has tunneled the vision of even the most centered of people. When did the pendulum start missing the middle ground in its swing? If you aren’t wearing 25 hats, at all times, are you marginalized as slacking? If you don’t have a side hustle while raising a brood of babies, are you contributing enough?

These are questions we ask ourselves when the pendulum hits below the belt. It seems silly to read something so extreme, but have we not woven a somewhat hyperbolic web for ourselves? I’ve found that when I’m capitalizing on (familiar yet unhealthy) behaviors, overcompensating is no longer something I consider “over;” it doesn’t feel like excess at all, but rather exactly what is expected of me. Sometimes we use words that encourage us to over apologize, overcommit, or extend far beyond what is even priority, as if to create a backup option—a soft landing in the peripheral, in the event that our mind’s worst-case scenarios were to happen. 

As the waters get murky and we find ourselves getting knocked over by the rotating waves of falling short or being too much, it’s easy to come back to what often is the common denominators of such behaviors: living from a place of fear and living from the deep yearning for validation. I mean, the irony of writing on such a topic is staring at me square in the eye. Even formulating my thoughts for this very piece was a tug of war between sharing my heart in hopes others can relate, and the arresting worry that someone will feel unseen in it. Or worse yet? That I will fall short on being qualified.

There is a fine line between caring about how you perform as a boss, as an employee, as a friend, as a partner, and caring to the point of obsession, but the “going above and beyond” mentality wears a clandestine cape and before you know it, you’re putting it on and forgetting to take it off.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for doing more than what is asked of you in order to get ahead; many of us wouldn’t be where we are if we simply floated through life. But it’s so vital, all the rest of the time, to give ourselves permission to simply show up as is. So, where to begin the process of unlearning our tendency to overcompensate?

There is a time and place for doing more than what is asked of you in order to get ahead; many of us wouldn’t be where we are if we simply floated through life. But it’s so vital, all the rest of the time, to give ourselves permission to simply show up as is.

If I’m being honest (which I feel is the theme here already), I love a solid acronym to come back to when my brain can’t sift through the rest. In that spirit, I bring you BARE––let the bare minimum serve more as a gentle reminder to pause before you dive into superhuman tendencies.

B: First, take a Breath

The never-ending tentacles that are the platforms for which we are reachable at all times have been a conduit to the Hustle Zeitgeist we now live in. It’s a double-edged sword, really. We are encouraging one another to pursue independent goals, yet the lines are quickly blurring between empowerment and eminence. We make our best efforts to stay in our own lanes, and are somewhere subconsciously falling prey to the adjuvant path of mixed signals.

Maybe it’s the yoga teacher in me, but I’m the first to admit I forget to breathe when I’m overwhelmed. I find when the overexerting is in full effect, the bottom of the exhale isn’t always met. Can you relate? So this is your soft nudge to remind you of that thing that you always have with you: your breath. Take a deep one AND let it out before you take on the extra work project, before you sacrifice your self-care to aid in a one-sided relationship, before you do whatever it is your kryptonite may be.

A: Assurance: Check your source 

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that all of this is exceptionally more commonplace for women; there is just more expected of us, plain and simple. It’s also safe to say that generationally, things have evolved. I recently saw a quote that read something along the lines of how women are expected to work as if they didn’t have children, and then have those children as if they didn’t need to work.

Whether we’re speaking maternally or not, the stakes are high and amid it all, we look to the stands to find our value in whether or not we are doing okay, doing enough. We all need some validation from others––it gives us the incentive to keep forging a certain path or a reminder that our efforts are not lost on the recipient. But at what point is it the sole source of how we conduct ourselves? Doing the work internally to find our value beyond the praise and accolades of outside influences is of foremost importance. This looks different for every one person and requires some digging on your part. This may be as committed a thing as EMDR therapy, or as simple as a guided 3-minute meditation before your feet hit the floor in the morning. But it’s time to get the shovel out, sister.

R: Let it Rest

Your efforts are not unmitigated, regardless of the scale. Sometime soon, before you even test the waters of just showing up as is without going above and beyond, sit with the possibility of doing only what is required. It may feel like a relief to think about, and it may feel incredibly triggering. For me, it’s the latter, which in turn generates tried and true patterns and compulsions to kick in. It creates an inner bubbling of panic––as if by overcompensating I will bypass the possibility of setbacks, warranting me the vestige of saying “I’m still standing” or “I’m still reliable to them.” This is often the case in work AND is especially the case in relationships, for me personally, and I am discovering for many others, too. Especially as women.

Are the expectations coming from our respective industries, society, or ourselves? It’s probably an equal combination of all three but we must only look to ourselves in order to make this shift, and it cannot happen without pausing to rest in our feelings, come what may. 

E: Exposure

One of the things I am practicing with my therapist lately is Exposure Therapy. For example, if I needed to ask someone a favor that was entirely viable and fair to ask, my initial feeling would be guilt. Said feeling would be coupled with overexplaining and followed by the deep need to repay the person once said favor was completed, even if I’d done the same for them in the past. It’s not out of obligation but instead a genuine feeling that is fed by the gratitude or opinion of that person because of the need to feel needed/valued by them.

So now, instead, I am clear and concise in the ask and in foregoing all the unnecessary details, trusting that it will be well received because they know my intention. And then? I sit with it. I notice what comes up physically. I do not reread the text to figure out how it may be interpreted, sketching out all possible outcomes. When my therapist asks me, “What is the worst-case scenario?” for the situations I am trying to prevent, it almost always boils down to the fear of disappointing someone. That, my friends, points right back to value. We must learn to develop an inherent value so strong that any potential reactions or input from others cannot penetrate our own sense of it.

The only way to anoint the gnawing bruise of not enough-ness is to sit in the unfamiliar chair of trust. And believe me, if you sit here long enough, you may even start to get comfortable. Hell, you may even want to stay a while.

BY Sarah Hrudka Behlke - August 17, 2019

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August 19, 2019 5:05 pm

Wow, I really loved this. This hits the nail on the head for so many things in my life as well as so many women I know. Not sure how well I’ll be able to implement it but I will try to keep BARE in mind next time.

August 24, 2019 8:51 am

It’s like you’re inside my head right now! I keep trying to describe this exact feeling and you’ve done it really well here. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone.

August 24, 2019 11:48 am

Resonated so, so much. I also think we need to check ourselves and our sense of self importance and control. If we overcompensate aren’t we also assuming the worst of others, at some level? Aren’t we assuming our way is the only way? It’s humbling for me to try and recognize this and overcome it by letting go.

Betsy Patton
August 27, 2019 10:46 pm

This is beautiful and so well written. Life involves the ins and outs of who we are. Implementing BARE is so helpful when living a life which includes self acceptance. That furthers love for others. Life is good! Thank you Sarah!!!

May 5, 2020 11:29 pm

Your article made me cry because your words are the first I’ve come across in a while that adequately explain such similar thoughts, feelings, experiences, and emotions … you sum it up so well … I can truly relate on many levels. Your advise and insight is so encouraging and makes me not feel so alone! Thank you for writing this and thank you for sharing!

Mercy Gitari
November 11, 2020 11:46 am

I feel like you talking about me , it’s crazy how I overcommit at work just for extra expectation or rather impression , but inthe end it scares me that one mistake would get me fired and they would never consider my everyday efforts , Your articles gets me thinking I should slow down , recently my dad told me to learn how to be mean , over giving is dangerous especially once they realize they have nothing else to get from me , they trash me , as this is becoming the nature of human being just now, they… Read more »

February 19, 2021 11:40 am

Wow, it was refreshing reading this, thank you🙏🏽

September 30, 2021 4:59 am

Beautiful, well written!

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