By: Louisa Busher
Have you ever had an idea of what your life ‘should’ look like? Does your reality often fall short of your expectations?
The answer to these questions might be yes, and you’re not alone. Ideas formed in our early years feed into our expectations, and we often work towards a future that we think we want, or even, need. Just as our early experiences are unique to us, so are our expectations, and these can shift throughout our lifetimes. For example, at one point, you expected to be in a certain job or relationship, and at another time these seem less significant. Perhaps your perspective changed gradually, or an event happened which forced you to re-evaluate. How we experience and cope with this will also depend on different factors, such as our natural disposition, our support network, and our current circumstances.
Although the twists and turns in our lives can feel exciting and be welcomed by some, for others it might mean facing painful feelings. These may affect us temporarily but can also persist as we move through life. These feelings are similar to that of grief and this process is referred to as ‘nonfinite loss’, occurring when there is dissonance between what we expected and the reality of our lives (1). Despite not always being able to change this, we can begin to identify how this makes us feel, and why this is causing us discomfort. Perhaps you believe you are not living up to your parent’s expectations? Why is this? Maybe you feel that you would be further on in your career if X, Y, or Z hadn’t happened? Whatever it is, by identifying the cause and reason for our discomfort, we can begin to reframe how we think about our lives. This can help us make sense of our own stories, and in time lessen the gap between our expectations and our realities.
Another way of doing this is by reminding ourselves that no-one is immune to the unpredictability of life, nor does anyone have it ‘sorted’. When we are facing challenging times, or having to cope with unfulfilled expectations, it can be easy to feel that we are the only ones to experience these. We feel unsatisfied and this is further worsened by our instinct to compare ourselves to those around us. We see other people as carefree, settled, fulfilled and this can lead to us feeling alone and asking ourselves where we went wrong. Reminding ourselves that, for all of us, life is impermanent and unpredictable, can be grounding. Perhaps one way of approaching this is to let go of the idea that life is linear and always going upwards. Instead, it is full of its ups and downs which we must navigate, and which occur regardless of our age, background or previous experiences.
Furthermore, this can also help relieve us of unnecessary guilt or responsibility that we carry. Often we will look for reasons why our lives have (or have not) turned out the way they have. We convince ourselves that if we had made different decisions we would be living another reality instead of recognising that, to a certain extent, life goes its own way. That’s not to say we can’t influence our lives, and that we shouldn’t build towards any sort of future, but it’s also about keeping in mind that certain things are out of our control. A useful exercise can be to list your worries and then group them into those you can ‘influence’ and those which are outside of your control. By unpicking our concerns like this we can begin to identify those which we can actively do something about, and also accept that there are aspects of our lives that we have less direct control over (2).
Finally, finding ourselves in unexpected circumstances does not necessarily mean that the outcome will be negative. An occurrence that may have seemed disastrous at the time may be more fortunate than we initially realised, as the following anecdote illustrates;
‘There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked on his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbours came to visit. ‘Such bad luck’, they said sympathetically. ‘Maybe’, the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. ‘How wonderful’, the neighbours exclaimed. ‘Maybe’, replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours again came to offer their sympathy for his misfortune. ‘Maybe’, answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbours congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. ‘Maybe’, said the farmer.’
Moreover, this anecdote also illustrates that, just as we are quick to compare ourselves with others, others can be equally quick to comment on our lives. Although other people can be a great source of support at times, it can also be necessary for us to challenge, and even reject unhelpful opinions. This allows us to maintain our perspectives without these getting too clouded by other people’s judgments.
Although our expectations can change, at times they will also seem at odds with the reality of our lives. This can trigger grief-like feelings, also known as ‘infinite loss’, which can be painful to manage if we don’t know how to approach it. By identifying the source and reason for our discomfort, we can start to unpick our feelings and learn to make sense of our stories. Furthermore, we can begin to challenge negative thinking patterns by recognising that life is unpredictable and impermanent for us all, and we are not alone in our experiences. Like the Taoist farmer, it is also useful to remember that a seemingly negative (or positive) twist or turn may lead to a further unexpected outcome in our life. We can then begin to accept life’s ‘ebb and flow’, helping us realise that although it regularly falls apart, it nonetheless always comes back together again.
(1) Williams, L. (2020). 7 Types of Grief You Should Know Right Now [online]. Available from: https://whatsyourgrief.com/types-of-grief-2
(2) Taylor, J. (2017) The Circle of Concern and Influence [online]. Available from: https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/the-circle-of-concern-and-influence/