Beware of the extra mile

There are people ‘going the extra mile’ all over the place these days. From job interviews to appraisals, from pitches for new business to CVs, from websites to board rooms like Lord Sugar’s on The Apprentice, you can readily hear or read this phrase without having to travel an extra mile yourself.

The ‘extra mile’ of which they speak is that heroic extra effort, that additional, metaphorical distance that is travelled by keen, conscientious or ambitious people up and down the land as they strive to meet and exceed expectations and targets, to make money, or to impress and please people. It often achieves these things. But then what? What happens next? Well, it’s time to go another extra mile – the extra, extra mile perhaps – either for the same person or purpose, or for another one. And it happens again and again and again.

The sad thing that happens if you carry on going the extra mile is that you run out of extra miles and fall off the edge of the map (my own new nugget of business waffle – like it?). You then discover that getting back onto the map involves going more extra miles than you’ve ever gone before.

Sadder still, you realise, with the benefit of wisdom, hindsight or counselling, that:

a) you were actually going the extra mile so people would like you and give you praise;

b) you did that to prove to yourself that you were good enough; and

c) the extra miles you travelled got you nowhere.

After all those gruelling extra miles in pursuit of great rewards and riches – otherwise known as fulfilment and self-esteem – you still haven’t convinced yourself that you’re good enough to meet your own exacting standards. Striving to excel in every situation and to please everyone hasn’t worked.

I’ve been talking in metaphors and riddles up to this point, so allow me to spell out what I’m talking about. I’m one of those people who has always ‘gone the extra mile’. It has brought me plenty of kind words from plenty of people, but it has also brought me great stress, which then brought me depression. The real benefits of going that extra mile are few and far between, and you can find yourself incapable of going a single mile, let alone an extra one.

This isn’t a ‘poor me’ story. It’s a warning. Conscientious people are prone to depression because they keep going and keep going. Now armed with the benefit of hindsight from two rounds of counselling, I’d say that if you find yourself about to embark on another extra mile and it feels a step too far, stop, take some time out, and reconsider. Do it now, then you might be able to do some more extra miles when they’re really necessary and when they’re worth the destination.


22 Comments on “Beware of the extra mile”

  1. Romy says:

    Too right Paul, This year I said ‘no’ to extra hours for the first time ever!

  2. Erincea says:

    Excellent, well thought through article. That extra mile has a lot to answer for.

  3. perdita says:

    Whar if you have to go the extra mile because you are in a caring profession, and if you don’t, other people will suffer? At this time of cut back that’s the situation a lot of us find ourselves in- short staffed, not working for self esteem or promotion but because our ‘clients’ are people in need.

    Some of us also hear from others on MH forums – often with similar medical needs- how they are disgruntled (in some cases sweary rants, slagging our profession off) at the waiting times/shortcomings of their care providers. And that raises a moral dilemma: make myself ill to ensure the right thing is done/reduce stigma in the workplace by excelling or look after myself whilst knowing exactly how it might affect others and exactly how they might feel?

    It’s a difficult moral dilemma.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      Thanks for the comment, Perdita.

      That’s very difficult and I don’t know the answer. I have a lot of respect for people in caring professions, and the under-resourcing for such crucial work is shocking.

      I can only write from my own perspective, and my experience has been that I’ve worried so much about other people that I’ve ended up in a place where I have to think about myself – at least for a while – or I am actually no use to anyone else. Even though I don’t work in a caring profession, there’s always someone who has to do extra work if I’m not here because of stress/depression, so there is a knock-on effect, and I wouldn’t feel good about that. Also, my mood when stressed or depressed has an impact at home, which is more important to me than anything else.

      My point is that people can only do so much before it makes them ill. It won’t happen to everybody, but if it does, you will find you can’t keep going the extra mile, whatever your profession and whoever your clients.

      Anyone else working in similar circumstances to Perdita?

    • elephantphone says:

      And therein lies the pernicious evil at the heart of the Big Society. They will cut and cut and cut because they know that carers of all types will go the extra mile, working for less pay or volunteering in a role that was once provided a living. Soon it won’t be optional to go the extra mile it will be a prerequisite for survival. Welcome to the new Dickensian age.

  4. HI Paul and Perdita,

    Oh you betcha! I think the caring profession literally means going the extra marathon every day.

    I work in a caring profession, with young troubled people and I really could be working a 70 hour week. I often wish I could delegate to a clone….

    I’m very fortunate that my often spluttered ‘ermmmm no!’ does not mean someone physically suffers pain for longer. Most of the time it is not a life or death situation. I have the greatest admiration and respect to those whose work involves making these choices.

    However, I still seem to be the one with the biggest client case load, the one colleagues always copy into emails and (for some stupid reason) answer them and volunteer my services first… I’m unable to say no, I’m the ‘nice one’, a ‘soft touch’, the one who can be relied on to take on ‘just’ one more, because noone else has the time or space… I sit in many meetings with other professionals who are similar to me and some of them look absolutely and permanently exhausted. I personally think the cuts are too big and far too much is demanded of us. We simply can’t provide all that needs to be done. It really is sometimes like the little lad trying to stop the dam by plugging the hole with his finger.

    But, as my patient wonderful supervisor keeps saying, I’ll be good to noone if I burn out. Even half burnt out, I’m no good really. So the dilemma is, do I do less but do it to the best of my ability and hopefully help a few, or do I ‘look’ like I’m helping loads more (looks good on my statistics, boss/colleagues like that, more funding for the Agency, boxes ticked!), but actually be of no real help and may be in danger of making a mistake, due to tiredness etc, which could cause serious damage to people.

    I am learning about self care… I can say with some conviction time invested in yourself is not greedy or selfish. I have learnt to listen to myself and hear the tiny early warning signs I am doing too much before the inevitable depression seeps in. I am my best and only resource. I have to practice self care in the same way I service my car regularly. It’s the only way I survive. Yes, people will complain. They will always want more and I will always want to give more. But I can’t please all the people all the time.

    I think we all have to find our own ways of coping and in no other profession is it as challenging as the caring profession. But, I think the real challenge we need to learn is to love and value ourselves, the input we can give and to be realistic.

    Whatever anyone’s thoughts about Jesus, whether you think he is the Son of God, or just a good man, there is proof he did exist and I think I’m right in saying did heal, so he had it within his power to alleviate some people’s suffering. A top guy who cared deeply for people and was always in demand. But it’s well documented that he goes off alone, leaves the crowds pleading for his help, finds time to be alone with his thoughts and draw strength from his faith in his Father. He didn’t worry that people wouldn’t like him or respond to the faith. He knew they were suffering, but for a short time he put his own needs first. In our society, in our profession this might seem shocking, but it is vital. We are, after all, only human.

    All the best Perdita as you struggle with this dilemma, as I do, on a daily basis.

    Thanks again Paul for grasping the nettle and tackling issues which can so cause depression to rise up and strike. Hope Brookes is slimming down, whingeing and rocking in a dark corner somewhere!

  5. Noch Noch says:

    i always went the extra mile indeed. and fell off my map too
    now i try to find “just right” 🙂
    Noch Noch

  6. James The Dude says:

    Gosh I really like your blog Dippyman, its great. I too find myself suffering from depression after being an all out performer and people pleaser. I actually did go the extra mile, many in fact, training for marathons. Did a great time, kept it up, weight fell off….now full blown Eating Disorder. 42 year old blokes shouldn’t be getting EDs, but I realise I was so unhappy about being a bloater that when I got my new Iggy Pop-esque physique, I couldn’t stop. Fundamentally I know its about control, and not the not eating part, and am looking forward to the planned CBT. I am currently on Setrolene, which is fine, apart from the puffy morning eyes. I came close to losing my family with the depression, so whilst this isn’t a great place to be, its a lot better place than it could have been. They are wonderful and give me great support. I read your bit on not drinking, and I have to say that’s the bit I do struggle with, I like a real beer now and again, but I realise that I also used to “use” it to chill and combat my uptightness and anxiety, and really it didn’t do me any favours. Write more, please, this is good stuff.

  7. Hi, that’s really great advice! What’s your experience when you’ve actually had to put it into practice? How do you decide what to say ‘no’ to, or do you handle it a different way? I think I find myself with too much to achieve because I’ve been asked to do too many things but can’t say ‘no’.

    • paulbrook76 says:

      I am not great at taking my own advice Claire, but what I am learning is that the fear of what might happen is usually far worse than what actually happens. I am great at imagining bad things, especially imaginary arguments, but in reality just about everything can be resolved without the disasters I have imagined!

      • I have read about trying out experiments to test whether things turn out to be as bad as I predict they will be. It sounds like you’re having some joy with that approach. I’m very scared of trying it, because I am so safe in my patterns!

      • paulbrook76 says:

        Yes, it does sound scary, but I think the idea is not to go straight in with something major. So don’t try not turning up to work, for example, but you could try saying ‘I’ve got to do w, x and y today, which means I don’t have time to do z’.

  8. […] of all or nothing. Save your best for when you really need it. Imagine you’re a car – too many extra miles and you’ll find yourself in the […]

  9. […] main thing is that I stay well. I’ve burned myself out before and am always on guard against doing it again. I’m grateful to be well enough to have […]

  10. […] that adds to a feeling that you’re not good enough and that you have to keep striving and ‘going the extra mile’. Learn to accept that ‘good enough’ is perfectly fine the vast majority of the […]

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