What do you want the rest of your life to look like? Think about it for a moment. Who do you want to have in it? What milestones or achievements? What material items, what experiences, what knowledge? I bet you $100 I can name at least a few of those things. Up for the challenge?
OK, I bet you said an education, fulfilling career, a lasting romantic relationship or union, kids, money, and a house. Pay up.
But here’s the thing. I asked what you want, not what you expect. Most of us expect that we’ll have all the things mentioned above, rather than ever stop to picture a possible life without them. And what does that do? Well, as I mentioned before, disappointment is the disparity between our expectations and our reality; when we expect that our career will relate to our first degree 0r diploma; that our relationship will sustain all stressors; that we’ll be able to afford to buy a house (which, at least in Vancouver, can be about as likely as you E-transfering me my $100); and that we will not only be able to have kids, but they’ll be born healthy and will be free of mental or physical illness; well, we end up creating a large margin for feeling disappointed, defeated, unfulfilled, and ashamed.
First, let’s take a look at where these expectations come from; believe it or not, I didn’t read your mind when I asked you that question earlier (contrary to the common misconception that “Psychology” is the study of reading minds–you former Psych majors get it…). Anyway, Books, movies, games (playing “House,” anyone? No? How about “The Sims?”), parents, portraits, peers, and predecessors (I had to keep up with the “P”s there) create a “script” for how we should live our lives. As humans, we can’t handle uncertainty. We create religious beliefs to handle our anxiety about death. We create theory upon theory to try to explain inexplicable phenomena. We pay psychics and fortune-tellers exorbitant fees to tell us our future. We can’t deal with not having a “plan” to guide us through life.
So what do we do? We decide to follow the one that we have shoved in our faces 24/7. Everything shouts to us “This is the ONLY RIGHT way to live your life.” Not, “This is one way” or even “This is one right way”…. What a s&@#l$*d of pressure! No wonder I have so many clients who feel absolutely worthless because, according to their “timeline,” they’re “off-track.” Seriously, this whole societal expectation things really effs with people. I speak to women whose depression is a result of not being married; men who believe they are failures or that no one will ever want to be with them because they don’t make “enough” money or they’re “still” in school; people who stay in their unhappy relationships because it’s “too late” to find someone else; students who are taking a program they despise because it’s what their parents want.
This is madness, people!!! It is not the lack of having these things that creates depression and despair; it is the belief that we SHOULD have these things in order to be considered worthy individuals. When did working at a gas station or Wal-Mart become dishonorable professions? I think it takes a pretty darn resilient individual to succeed in customer service! When did 35 become the magic age that women can no longer have children (FYI, the risk for down-syndrome is 1/214 from ages 35-39…still pretty decent odds!). When did devoting a portion of your time to a subject for a few years in your life sentence you to a career in that subject? When did life become something to be achieved instead of something to be experienced?
Ask yourself, do I want (insert goal here) because it is absolutely necessary for a good life, or is it because my deeply imbedded values say that I need it to feel adequate? It’s very difficult to disentangle our thoughts from ideas that have been there since we were 3 years old, but humor me and try it for a few minutes. How does it feel? Is there another way I could be happy in my life, if I were unable to achieve one or all of these things? I’m not saying don’t hope for them; I’m just saying don’t make your happiness conditional on them.
I certainly want most of those things mentioned, and I hope one day I experience some of them; but I’m also aware that 50% of marriages fail, and many of the remaining 50% are wrought with dissatisfaction. I’m aware that the economy is suffering, tragedies happen, and interests change. I’m aware that we really only have some influence over if or how we fulfill these expectations, whereas much is left up to happenstance and opportunity. I’m aware that ceremonies and promotions and vacations may be highlights, but what makes them so is the normalcy of daily life–the mundane, the traffic, the dishes; the routines. Rather than living for the achievements, try living for the now. The every day. Try to open up to the idea that happiness, confidence, and success are not static concepts one achieves; rather, they are dynamic and transformative. Rather than nouns, they are verbs (OK, if you look them up in the dictionary, they’re nouns, but I hope you see my point). They require constant awareness, adaptation, and perspective.
So the next time you feel like a “failure,” or make a statement that sounds something like “I know I’ll be happy when I _____,” ask yourself how much arbitrary societal expectations are playing in your self-directed pressures, and how such conditions for “success” in life might limit you from feeling confident, secure, and content today. Don’t listen to that authoritarian “coach” who tells you you’re not good enough until you medal (apologies to the Russians in the house).
“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”