by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
It occurs to me that like myself, many of us probably don’t have the life we would have chosen. Let’s be honest, when you were twelve and imagining your life in the future – your dream career based on your current twelve-year-old passions, your dream wedding and possibly your dream spouse, your dream home, all of the material things that you longed to have (that you just knew you would have, because you’d be a grown up with grown up privileges like jobs and earnings) – you didn’t imagine this. You didn’t imagine the life that you just woke up to today. Perhaps one of the pieces of your dream puzzle didn’t quite line up. Perhaps none of the pieces did. Perhaps the entire puzzle is something that you don’t even like and you want to throw the whole thing out and purchase a new one. Perhaps you already did.
External vs. Internal Expectations
There are so many things about my life that didn’t go as I planned. If I am to be honest, I can readily admit that I am someone who failed to make any piece of my original puzzle fit. I can barely even remember what the original puzzle was, only I know that it didn’t look like this. Every step of the way I have repeatedly failed at things, predicted poorly, and changed courses. The changes of course that I have made have often resulted in far-reaching consequences, consequences that I am stuck living with for years to come. There is no going back and fixing my puzzle, no undoing the past, and yet I have a growing sense of authenticity and altruism and a growing sense of peace. When I really back up and consider this outcome, at first it seems like a bit of a mystery, even to me. Almost nothing that I wanted for my life happened or it happened and then blew up in my face or disintegrated. There has been hardship and suffering that I could have never even imagined at twelve, and all of the things that I put on a pedestal as the “must haves” for myself simply aren’t present, or they look vastly different than I imagined.
When I think back to the things that I put on my must-have list, things like enduring close friendships, one perfect, happy marriage, several perfect children, my dream job, dream house, dream stuff, dream financial state, I realize that all of those things are external to me. I never dreamed about the work I would need to do on myself, the things that would need to be addressed in my family and relationships, the healing that would need to take place, the person I would desire to become, the circumstances that would need to take place to get me there, the gifts that I might have that the world might need, or all of the internal changes that would take place over a life time to bring me to a place of authenticity, altruism, and joy. When I struggle with anxiety or feelings of sadness or depression about my life,
“When I struggle with anxiety or feelings of sadness or depression about my life, it is typically because I am temporarily reverting back to a place of putting my expectations on a pedestal.”
it is typically because I am temporarily reverting back to a place of putting my expectations on a pedestal. I am wrestling with the imaginary life that I don’t have, rather than embracing fully the one that I do have.
What is ACT Therapy?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT Therapy, is something that came to mind as I was considering what I need to do to get out of the funk that I can sometimes find myself in. ACT Therapy is truly an action-oriented approach and believes that many of our struggles are related to four factors: Fusion of thoughts, Evaluation of Experiences, Avoidance of Thoughts and Actions, and Reasoning, resulting in the acronym FEAR. ACT Therapy resists the idea of normalcy and really focuses on being psychologically flexible, accepting the things in our life that are difficult for us to accept. ACT Therapy encourages an ongoing commitment to changing for the better through intentional action. Some techniques involve
“ACT Therapy resists the idea of normalcy and really focuses on being psychologically flexible, accepting the things in our life that are difficult for us to accept. ACT Therapy encourages an ongoing commitment to changing for the better through intentional action.”
accepting oneself as many different things and not trying to control different aspects of ourselves. This technique is really about embracing the art of “being” rather than labeling oneself with things that could potentially be disappointing or fleeting, such as professional identities or relationship status. One technique involves seeing thoughts like waves, letting them swell and dissipate, while not reacting impulsively, acknowledging thoughts without attempting to act on them or control them. Unlike some more traditional counseling theories, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focuses on directly combatting thoughts, ACT Therapy focuses on accepting thoughts as mere thoughts and instead focuses on intentional action to help change the way we react to our thoughts, subsequently changing our feelings. The goal is to outgrow the processes that aren’t working for us, to leave behind what is holding us back. ACT Therapy also has techniques designed to help people rate their values and ensure that they are living out of their values, which is extremely important if one is to find meaning and purpose despite failing to achieve their life wish-list.
ACTing Towards Change
I like ACT Therapy because it is very strongly based in the here-and-now and fosters acceptance of what we don’t like about ourselves and our lives. Many times, focusing on being in the moment, and accepting what is, are two things that really help me to embrace the life that I have rather than the one that I don’t. When I can get out of my mind and join my children, my friends, my family, right where we are in our imperfect lives, when I can experience connection with others without expectation, when I can let go of disappointment and simply value authenticity and honesty, then I am able to enjoy my life. If I can rejoice in the growing authenticity I am experiencing in my life, I can free myself from being hung up on disappointment and unmet expectations and I can value what is important: all of those internal things that are changing and growing and solidifying inside of me. When I focus inward, I can tolerate the discomfort that I am sometimes tempted to wallow in.
When I get to the end of my life, perhaps my puzzle looks nothing like the one I planned, but in the end I am the one who is responsible for evaluating the puzzle that I do have. I am willing to bet that my puzzle is extraordinary in the end, not because it meets some irrelevant expectation of myself or others or my life in general, but because the vision of the evaluator has changed. Seeing something with a new set of eyes, and focusing on internal growth rather than external factors, will reveal something worth celebration and gratitude.
To read more about prioritizing values and setting value-specific goals, see Priorities: Goalkeeping is Key.
For more information on managing expectations and disappointment, especially as they relate to relationships, see Expectations and Fairness: Can You Tell the Difference?