Being a grown up. That big move. Marriage. Having kids. The promotion you’ve been working towards. The career you thought you wanted.
We have great expectations. About all sorts of things. And it’s wonderful and exciting. Developing a vision for what is possible is powerful and motivating. It’s that fire that keeps you engaged and lights you up even when times get dark.
However, once you’ve built up that vision, it’s easy to become attached to it. And, some days, the reality does not match the expectations at all.
How do we think about that? Does the reality mismatch mean that the thing was not good to begin with? Did you make the wrong decision? Were you somehow misguided? Or is it that we need to check our expectations?
I’m a planner. A little Type A. Recovering perfectionist. So, preparing for the birth of my child was a bit of a minefield. There is so much advice out there and, ever the good student, I set out to master it all. So, when a colleague whose wife was a pediatrician gave me a book on sleep for babies, I read it. Highlighted. Underlined. Tabbed. It explained how crucial it was to get your baby on a set sleep schedule immediately. I had a notebook I was supposed to use to track sleeping and eating times to make this all work seamlessly (and avoid permanently breaking my child). I was on the task!
And, just like that, this rich experience I was embarking on became about whether my miracle baby was sleeping precisely when some book said he should be. Never mind that he didn’t seem to work like that. Add my own sleep deprivation and this was not at all the blissed-out mommy-baby newborn scene I’d held so firmly in my mind for the years it took to get there. Blessedly, I ultimately came to my senses and realized something important. This wasn’t working…and it didn’t need to.
As soon as I relaxed my grip on the assumption that my baby needed to be on a set sleep schedule from birth, I was able to enjoy the abundance. Ultimately, my partner and I held things loosely and found what worked for us. As a couple, walking and exploring was a favorite pastime and we soon found the same to be true for our young family. Sleep worked best on the go, when we were all together. So that’s what we did. On the weekends, we would load up the stroller for the day and set out in the early morning, walk to the beach or the park, then play, chill, enjoy. When nap time called, we’d pack up and walk on. The movement and the melody of our voices, along with everything going on around us would lull our little one to sleep. During naps, we’d do something fun for ourselves, like relaxing over lunch or seeing friends. A little unconventional but it suited us. We wound up delighting in our child’s nap schedule, rather than dreading it.
This is a pretty specific example, I know, but the idea translates to all other aspects of our lives. Marriage. Jobs. Friends. Where have you held onto a belief or assumption about how something should be so tightly it obscured what is?
In the early days of my first in-house legal role, my Chief Turnaround Officer asked me about something. Probably some kind of a contractual framework. I don’t remember the details. I do remember saying that I assumed something to be the case. Recognizing and noting your assumptions is vital and, now, every time I do, I hear his voice saying what he said to me that day. “When you assume, you make an ass out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” It helps me stay mindful of the fact that there are parts of the picture that I have filled in myself and have not yet validated. It also always gives me a little chuckle and I’m ever a fan of levity.
To flesh this out, I like to ask myself, what do I know to be true? And, also, what unknowns exist for me right now? This helps me ground in more balanced expectations and, also, contextualize those things I’ve filled in myself as excitement about the unknown and possibility, as opposed to the way things are going to or supposed to be.
This can go the other way too. Sometimes, we can get so hooked on the original vision or goal that it is hard to soften our grasp, even with intense dissonance between the vision and the reality. Perhaps we find ourselves doing the thing we set out to do, only to find it isn’t what we thought it would be. Making partner. Starting our own business. Moving to the new place. Happily ever after.
It can sometimes feel like, once you’ve made this decision and decided on the goal (whether it worked for you at a time or not), you can’t change your mind. You’ve invested all of this time and energy. Perhaps it’s become your whole identity. You can’t separate yourself from it, let alone walk away.
Here too, though, it is imperative we loosen our hold. The shoulds and our inner critics can be very loud in times like this. So, it’s essential to make the space and quiet to explore. If there were no “right” answer, what do you really want? And how do you want to feel? Is there anything you need to grieve or process to make room for possibility?
Sometimes, the answer is starting fresh with a blank canvas. Others, it’s broadening your palette and painting with different colors. In all cases, it’s about zooming out. Taking in the full picture. Seeing all that is there before you. Along with what isn’t working, there, among the glorious details and dazzling colors lies what will. And, you will find it’s possible for the reality to far exceed your greatest expectations.