On Facebook, I saw a post that read: “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.” For decades, I was the world’s best at fabricating this illusory bubble and criticizing myself mercilessly for not measuring up.
Through eighteen years of marriage and for several years of single motherhood after, I tried to live up to the picture I held of a with-it woman who could keep her man happy, use a power drill, edge the yard, and whip up a mouth-watering dinner in a sparkling kitchen resembling an ad on the pages of a magazine while she looked effortlessly fabulous the whole time. Needless to say, I nor my life ever fit this description – not even close. After a messy divorce and disastrous post-marriage relationship, I found myself feeling like a miserable failure as a woman and mother. I was the furthest I’d ever been from my ideal image.
“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be!” I huffed. Eventually, after one insult piled on top of another, my answer to straying so far off of the “should” path was to try to end my life, resulting in a serious brain injury and losing custody of my sons.
And, I thought things were bad before?
In the years since the attempt to end my life, I’ve evolved to understand that I was causing my own suffering and torturing myself with expectations of what should be. I’ve come to realize that there is no “should be.” There is only what is. I can alleviate almost all pain and suffering by getting rid of the “shoulds” and consciously being accepting and open to whatever unfolds. Many philosophies teach and I’ve found that emotional torment and suffering come from our attachment to thoughts about what happens, not what actually happens. Pain originates in the space between our thoughts and reality.
In Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie explains:
A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It is not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Thoughts are like the breeze or the leaves on the trees or the raindrops falling. They appear like that and through inquiry we can make friends with them. Would you argue with a raindrop? Raindrops aren’t personal and neither are thoughts.”
Katie advises us to meet our thoughts with understanding and inquiry and proposes that behind every uncomfortable feeling, there’s a thought that’s not true for us. To change the stressful, uncomfortable feelings, we must understand the original thought causing it rather than look outside of ourselves at circumstances or people.
After the reflexive “aack!” feeling, my acceptance of what is closes the gap between expectations and reality, ending the pain, and, only then, can I begin contemplating how to make the circumstances work best for me. While not always possible, I try to eliminate expectations as much as I can and remain open to whatever unfolds.
Enlightened individuals, I understand, may never even experience initial alarm and surprise because they are free of expectations. With a nonchalant shrug, a highly cultivated mind might think “Oh, now this.” While I’m not anywhere near there yet, I’m much closer than I used to be. I find it helpful to remind myself that, just because events cause me pain or aren’t what I expected or wanted, that doesn’t mean that whatever’s happening isn’t in my highest good or can’t turn out OK or for the best even in the end.
So many times, circumstances, which I pegged as dubious, at first, turned out to be just fine when all was said and done. From experience, I’ve learned not to even begin to presume that I know what’s “best” in any situation. What we like, want, and think we need isn’t always going to provide growth or even get us to our goal, oftentimes. By trying to force a certain outcome, I limit many other possibilities which could be awesome and bring what I was seeking in the first place (happiness, love).
Life gets infinitely easier when I remain open without expectations.
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I’m a long distance sailor and on my first big trip I had a very ambitious agenda to sail from Seattle down the coast all the way to Panama, through the canal and ultimately to Europe. I had spent three years training myself, getting the boat ready, and planning the routes within the appropriate weather windows. Despite a few learning curve challenges, equipment failures and fixes, as well as a family emergency that took a month out of my schedule, I sailed on.
I was half way down Mexico, pushing my boat and myself to the limits to ‘catch up’, when I took a hard look at the ‘goals’ I had set for myself. I decided to hit the reset button, abandon my first big effort and head back home. About a year later I decided to venture out again, but this time my only goal was to sail safely and have a good journey, no matter what the destination evolved into.
I ended up in Hawaii, had many more interesting experiences, and managed to make friends with tons of incredible people because I had the ‘luxury’ of lingering when I wanted to and sailing on my own schedule.
To sum up, what this taught me was a concept I like to call, ‘Dreaming within your means’. Definitely set realistic short term goals but have the flexibility to change your goals and focus as new experiences and opportunities that you could never have imagined crop up.
Holokai, thanks so much for sharing your experience. It perfectly illustrates what the post is about. “Dreaming within your means.” I love it.
While I do see the value in long term, broad goals, we have to be flexible, adaptable, and aware in the present to allow these to unfold – however they will. Most often, as in your second trip, life surprises us wonderfully. It is our job to be open to and allow it. Good for you for recognizing this.
Hi Debbie – don’t think there are too many enlightened individuals out there:) I think most of us have various degrees of feelings of not measuring up. And yes, they all begin with our belief systems. I think before non-attachment, and what Katie is suggesting, is awareness. Only once we make attempts to be more conscious and observant of our thoughts and our life are we able to make changes to them. And stop caring what we should be doing or comparing ourselves to other people. Being who we are and accepting that and accepting life as it happens to us is key to living a content and happier life.
We may not all be there but the realization is a big first step:)
Vishnu, good to hear from you. Yes, awareness is most definitely a first essential step on the path to consciousness. Acceptance is the next biggie, but makes life so much easier, I have found!
Eliminating expectations is the one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever attempted. I think writer Anne Lamott puts it very well: “Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. If you say, “Well, that’s pretty much what I thought I’d see,” you are in trouble. At that point you have to ask yourself why you are even here. […] Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”
Hello, Cindy! Glad to see you found me on here! 🙂 I love the Ann Lamott quote you shared. Likewise, I know that, for me, abundance, happiness, and blessings can always be found in the seemingly mundane details of every day life if I just look for them. I like it that way because the supply is inexaustable and constant!
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Thank you SO MUCH for this post and all the info on the site. Just found your site and have been reading for hours.
Being in my early 40s and having suffering from pretty intense rapid cycling bipolar ii for about 15 years (not even aware of it for more than half of those)… the depression cycle has gotten lower, and more intense, each time over the past year.
Totally cleaned up the diet, hit the fitness regimen, cut out the alcohol and refined sugars… basically go the point were these were my last attempts to save myself before, well… you know.
Been doing mindfulness meditation – heavily – along with brainwave entrainment the past 4 years. Have done a ton of work with Joe Dispenza’s neuroplasticity meditations and Kelly McGonigal’s self-compassion the past 3 months (hands down, the BEST self-help program I’ve ever found.)
ANYWAY… about 2 weeks ago, it hit me… like really hit me and I got ‘it’. That I’m not my brain or my body. They’re just the ‘parts’ I use to navigate this physical world.
This thought has really – really – transformed my life. And your post here about not reacting to or identifying with thoughts, and even emotions and feelings, is fantastic! And only reaffirms it!
THANK YOU SO MUCH for posting all of this material. I’ve pushed back a few deadlines tonight (Darned ‘have tos’) to read your ‘stuff’. It’s that good.
Thanks again. Thomas, Seattle
I am soo sorry. I just saw this tonight for some reason. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m thankful to be able to share my lessons and for others to find value in them. Sounds like you are on your own journey making significant progress and awakening. It’s fun isn’t it? Keep up the good work. The better it gets, the better it gets! All the best to you! 🙂
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