A client shared his frustration over not achieving more in his life, all those things he thought he would have done by now. I suggested that his struggle with low self-esteem would be helped if he stopped comparing himself to others. This man, like many I know, deals heroically every day with the special needs challenges in his family. He and his wife step up in a non-traditional, focused, determined manner that is hard for outsiders to imagine. He is the frog in the pot, so it is nearly impossible for him to see how exceptional he is.
His reaction to me was: “Are you asking me to lower my expectations?”
No, I said, I’m asking you to blow them up, destroy them, obliterate them to dust. I hate that term: ‘lower expectations’, (can you tell?) as if by thinking differently we are less ourselves instead of more. Here are some tips:
1. Start with a clean slate. Be honest with yourself. Are the expectations you are holding onto really your own? Or are they some one else’s? If they are someone else’s ditch them.
2. Brain storm. Write a stream of consciousness, without censor, without judgement. You can cull out the absurd (I expect to be America’s Next Top Model!) later.
3. Embrace where you are in life, because where ever you are, even if it’s really hard, it is Good.
4. Create goals, expectations, standards, whatever you want to call them, that work with you instead of against you. I may not ever be America’s Next Top Model, but I can lose ten pounds.
5. Keep the expectations fluid. Your needs in life will change for good and all. Keep light on your feet.
At the end of Working Girl, (an ’80’s iconic movie that you have got to see just for the hair!) a titan of industry tells a story to his board of directors that goes something like this:
One day in the Lincoln Tunnel, traffic came to a stop. A huge 18-wheel truck exceeded the clearance of the tunnel and got stuck. It couldn’t move forward or backward. The emergency crew were at a loss, scratching their heads as tempers began to fray all around them. Finally a little boy from a car waiting patiently behind the rig piped up: “Why don’t you just let air out of the tires?” Which, of course, they promptly did, lowering the truck which allowed it to move forward.
Life generally requires at least a few of those deflating-the-tires moments. My life is actually full of them and they haven’t been easy to deal with here’s why.
Even though I know I have to deflate my tires I resist it. My heart tells me I am not living up to potential yet again! So many times I asked myself if it was time to lower my expectations. In a small but very significant way it was having a chronic illness that first taught me that the old expectations of myself were keeping me frustrated and depressed. As long as I held on to the notion that I had to have the same production levels as I did when I was healthy I was letting myself and in my eyes, everyone around me, down. It finally occurred to me that since my illness was not going away I had a face some choices.
Either I keep banging my head against the Old Expectations Wall or I blow the damn thing up and build a brand new wall, or a dig a tunnel under it or an airplane to fly over it!
Picture this: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Harrison Ford, “it’s not the years, it’s the milage” Indiana Jones, has battled and out raced countless henchmen bent on his destruction. He lands in a market square and out of nowhere comes a seven-foot tall giant brandishing the mother of all swords! Indy sighs, takes out his gun and shoots him.
Wow! Legend has it that Harrison Ford improvised this scene because he really was sick and too tired to do the choreographed sword fight. His flash of creativity became one of the most popular scenes in filmdom.
During my twenties when I was first confronted by a sickness that wasn’t going away I had a therapist who helped me break through my old expectations. It took over six years for me to get my B.A. Then when I was thirty, I bit the bullet and went to graduate school thinking I would be the old lady in the class. Guess what? There were many like me, some a even older, who had postponed their post-grad education for whatever reasons.
After adjusting and accepting a life without kids, after marrying late and being sick a lot, they arrived. It wasn’t easy, but now I have kids the same age as my great nieces and nephews. It’s a hoot!
My career expectation was to climb the corporate ladder to a satisfying administrative position. After hitting the glass ceiling I quit and struck out on my own. That was over fifteen years ago, now. The road to fulfilling my dream of a private practice for the 21st century has been rocky but every time I hit a rut, I remember I can change course and still move forward.
Hanging on to expectations that work against us is like trying to pull our fingers out of a Chinese finger trap. The more you yank and pull the tighter the damn thing traps your fingers. The trick is to keep calm, relax and let your clever brain find another way. Then your fingers slip out easily!