“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
― Albert Einstein
We all have expectations.
I expect the sun to rise each morning and set each evening. I expect that I will, in fact, wake up and be alive each morning. These kinds of expectations are generally not acknowledged as being an expectation since, it’s assumed by the majority of people that they will occur. They’re assumed events.
Then there are expectations that lessen our ability to see the choices and control in our lives. Many of these expectations we obtain through the course of our lives — through our childhoods, from influences of peers and authority figures, through exposure to situations, from the media and from familial and societal norms.
They may never be labeled as expectations. In many families there is an expectation that children will graduate highschool or go on to attend college. It’s often never verbalized directly. There may not be a direct, “You will go to college” but instead through learned behaviors and patterns, it’s understood and assumed.
There are many expectations that are “placed” upon us. Educational and career expectations, monetary expectations, and the order in which one’s life path will progress (for example: college, dating, marriage, house, kids). Other’s can have a great deal of expectations for how they wish or want us to behave, act and choose.
For me, the expectations I place upon myself are often the greatest. Not just for how I want my life to progress but also in how I view certain situations.
Holidays are a great example. For most of my life I remember believing that Christmas was supposed to be the most magical day of the year. That I would come down the stairs at my house and the tree would be the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. I’d be filled with happiness and joy and excitement. As I opened the presents that Santa brought me, I would be overwhelmed with surprise and the most amazing feeling of content at receiving THE thing I desired most. It would be a perfect day.
I honestly don’t understand where this view of Christmas came from. A television show? A movie? Did someone once tell me a story like this?
Either way, it was an extremely unrealistic expectation. Nothing is perfect. There was no possible way I would get the thing I most desired (which was a little sister). Over the years I began stripping away at my expectation of how Christmas “should be”. Eventually all that was left of my original vision was the emotional feeling. I should feel amazingly happy and joyful and content.
You might see where I’m going with this story. My expectation that Christmas should equal happiness, joy and contentment was a set-up for disappointment. I felt like I should feel those things and, by not feeling them, I began to question what I was doing wrong. What was wrong with me. Everyone else (in my extremely skewed viewpoint) felt that way on Christmas.
Of course, everyone else did not feel that way on Christmas. They felt however they felt. And there was no way Christmas should be or how I should feel. Believing that the situation should go a certain way was an expectation that was doomed to fail because it was impossible. And in failing, I looked to myself as the culprit. That I must have been the wrong variable in the equation.
What actually was happening was that my expectation was unrealistic. It was a fantasy that was unobtainable by me, or anyone else. My mistake was believing that I was the incorrect part. The incorrect part was the expectation itself.
Unrealistic expectations don’t just come in the fantasy form, of expecting that events and circumstances should turn out perfect or pretty darn close. We also have expectations that events or circumstances will turn out poorly.
Often times we have these expectations based on past experiences. In a situation where we have had a poor experience, we may give ourselves a poor expectation or even no expectation to avoid continued pain.
For example, if a person in our lives constantly lets us down – doesn’t follow through with what they say and disappoints us – we may begin to lower our expectations for them. So the next time they say they will visit or call, we don’t expect that they will. This allows us to avoid the disappointment that will follow if they do not visit or call.
However, this lowering of expectations may eventually spill over into other parts of out life. We may fear disappointment or failure, so we lower our expectations of events or situations to avoid feeling disappointment.
In doing so, we may be inadvertently setting ourselves up for failure. So many times I’ve set myself up for disappointment by believing that my expectations were not only obtainable (as in fantasy) or realistic (as in lowered expectations) but also the way things were supposed to be. That’s not to say that one shouldn’t have expectations, but we need to evaluate the validity of them.
Stress and disappointment, not to mention failure, certainly come from a disconnect between our expectations and reality. Setting realistic expectations for ourselves, and those around us, can help reduce stress and disappointment.
If everyday I expected to wake up and have a perfect morning, with two children who perfectly listened, got dressed, ate their breakfast and got themselves ready, I would be setting myself up for disappointment and stress everyday. The reality is that my girls are 3 and 7 years old and the morning I just described is not realistic. By having a realistic expectation of how my mornings will go, I can better plan and handle them.
Every day is a learning process. By examining my expectations and developing more realistic ones, I not only sidestep a lot of disappointment and pain, but I am better able to appreciate the situations and events that I do have. I try to have realistic expectations, not expectations of perfection because my life isn’t perfect, but it is real.
Many years ago in my life I was in a situation that I didn’t like. I was a teenager, struggling not only with being a teenager but also with some serious mental health issues. I remember at the time feeling like I was doing everything I could and being extremely frustrated that, despite my efforts, my life did not change.
At some point during this time period I was given this poem:
I think the first time I was given it, I didn’t even read it. I was given this poem on several other occasions as a teenager. Eventually I read it but, seriously?, this person is stupid! Just don’t walk into the hole, right?
Later, as an adult, still struggling with many of the same issues that plagued me as a teenager, I was again given this poem.
Reading it, I understood that the person in the poem wasn’t actually walking into a hole in the sidewalk. It was a metaphor. And it made a lot of sense.
The title of the poem, “Autobiography in Five Chapters” is aptly named. I won’t dissect the poem because, like most poetry, each person interprets it in their own way. However, I will discuss the implications to change.
Change really centers on a few things. First, we must realize that there are things that we cannot change and that we have no control over. Next, we must be aware of our own actions and behaviors and acknowledge them as our own choices and responsibility. And last, we must desire and have the courage to make different choices.
It’s obviously an over simplified description of a life-long, complex process. As a teenager I viewed my life much as the second verse in the poem. I continually made the same choices and was surprised that I was in the same place. It simply wasn’t my fault.
With time and a lot of effort to be more aware of my choices and responsibility for those choices, I shifted into a viewpoint somewhere in between the third and fourth verses in the poem. I made the same choices and ended up in the same place, but I wasn’t surprised anymore and I knew how I had gotten there. Eventually I was able to avoid the choices I had made out of habit. And by doing so avoided the outcome.
At present, I’m very much present in the fifth verse of the poem. I’m making new and more aware choices. I realize that those choices are mine to make and, if I don’t like their outcomes, I am always free to make a different choice.
There are parts of life that are out of our control, that we cannot choose and we cannot change. But the majority of our lives and things come directly from choices that we ourselves make. We are in control of those choices and any change we wish to make for ourselves. So often we lose sight of all the choices we (unconsciously) make and all the choices we can make, by focusing too greatly on the few we cannot.
Someone once told me that there are always choices, and they were right. It’s your life. It’s your choice.
That’s all we have. That’s all we ever had and will ever have.
Good moments. Bad moments. Moments that seems so insignificant at the time that later down the line we find ourselves replaying in our minds. Moments that make us feel something. Anything. That let us feel alive, if only in that very moment.
We’re all kidding ourselves to think otherwise. It truly isn’t about the grand picture, the sum of it all. It’s about the very little tiny times, scattered amongst the sea of monotony and sameness.
We don’t ever remember the majority of our lives. All the times spent sleeping or driving or working. We don’t keep those. We don’t keep the moments of repetition or status quo either.
And as quickly as we have them, as soon as we acknowledge their presence and grasp them with both hands, they slip away just as fast.
All we have is moments.
I know I keep writing about moments and being mindful, but it’s because its important! And honestly, it’s easy to forget.
Building on yesterday’s post, The Myth of the Perfect Holiday, I want to continue to focus on slowing down and being mindful.
Mindfulness (or being present in the moment) is being aware without judgement — of life as it is, of yourself as you are and of other people as they are — in the present moment, here and now.
Whatever your attention is on, that’s what life is for you at any given moment. Focus on the negatives in your life and that’s what your life is for you. Focus on worries, that’s what your life is. Focus on gratitude and positives and, you guessed it, that’s what your life is for you.
Take just a few seconds to recall a moment you have really valued. Maybe it was a special time with a loved one. Or an experience you had in nature. Perhaps it was time spent with a child or a pet. Or a time you reached an accomplishment or supported a friend in need. Think about this time (write it down if you wish) and take the opportunity to focus on what really matters.
It’s so easy to get lost in life, swept up in the rush of emotions and movements. Take the time to be in the moment, whatever it might be, because it’s really all we have.
Life has a way of building up, of stacking situations, events, emotions, needs and tasks on top of each other. Until it gets difficult to clearly see what is a priority and what is really important.
The holidays are especially a time like that. Making sure presents are gotten and wrapped. That the decorations go up. That the tree goes up and gets decorated. That you can find where the menorah is. (We celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and Winter Solstice). There’s excitement in the air and the kids can’t contain it (often the adults can’t either).
There’s traveling or guests coming to your house. Is your house clean? I better put away the empty bottles from the kitchen. And dust everything. And did I vacuum the floor in the basement where no one will go and that no one will see?
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in all the things we need to do and all the details that we fail to pay attention to the “other” things. Like driving. I’m not certain why, but once it hits the week before the holidays it seems that many people forget how to drive. Blinkers? I know where I’m going! Stop signs and speed limits? I need to get there 10 minutes ago.
And the inattention continues in the stores. People rushing and carelessly bumping into others. Failing to hold the door for the person behind you. Huffing at the long lines at the check out. Even fighting over the last of an item.
How is this beneficial to anyone? We’re all stressed out. Rushed. Anxious.
Everyone would like to have the “perfect” holiday. The perfectly decorated house. The perfect holiday meal. The perfect gifts, for loved ones and ourselves. But not at the expense of others and ourselves.
How about some goodwill towards others? Hold the door for the person behind you. Donate to those less fortunate, with monetary donations, donations of a gift or food, or volunteering your time. Say thank you to those helping you at the stores. Retail is brutal this time of year (and year round!) and a simple gesture such as thank you goes a long way.
Even if your house isn’t perfect. Or your meal doesn’t turn out as planned. Or the presents you give/receive aren’t exactly what was wanted. Be grateful of what you do have. And slow down.
Be kind to those around you in your daily travels. Be thankful of the food you consume. Be present in the moment and enjoy the time you’ve been blessed to spend with those you love.
It isn’t about the food. Or the presents. Or the decorations. Or what you receive. Or what you didn’t receive.
It’s about the moment.
So slow down, take a deep breath and just be here.
Wishing you all happy holidays, whatever you choose to celebrate.
Sometimes I don’t write for long periods of time.
I have many thoughts on topics I could write about and ideas that are amazing and important points I’d like to make and a funny story about something that happened to me. I have many thoughts about how I could write these things down and expand on them and how amazing they are.
Most of the time I forget them. They never make it out of my maze of a mind.
Some of the time I write them down and realize what I thought was amazing, really wasn’t.
Some of the time I write them down and I realize that what I’ve written is amazing. That what I’ve been able to express in words truly conveys what I initially thought, honestly portrays how I feel and reveals pieces of utmost clarity and importance in my self-growth and realization.
And most often then, I get scared.
When you write something such as that it’s like finding an opening inside of yourself, like taking a light and shining it on parts of yourself that you weren’t fully aware existed. In examining those parts you identify them and name them. In a very real sense, you expose yourself because looking at anything that was formerly unknown requires some method of exposure.
For me, this sort of exposure, this vulnerability is one of my greatest fears. I commend those who put themselves out there, who allow themselves to be open without fear of outcomes. Without wondering what that vulnerability might bring.
Perhaps they have been fortunate to not have experienced the pain that can result from being vulnerable. Perhaps they have but have found ways to compensate for it. Perhaps they don’t calculate or view any risks.
I have been in many situations throughout my life where allowing myself to be vulnerable has been taken advantage of. Each time resulting in removing some of the vulnerability I allowed myself to give, until I reached a place where there was no room left for me to give any at all. Where I reached a place where the risks of doing so gravely outweighed any benefits of allowing myself to be vulnerable.
Those of us who have been through trauma, those of use who have been through abuse, those of us who have been manipulated, deceived, hurt… know that eventually we can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable anymore. We build walls, physically, emotionally. We seclude ourselves from other people, from places, from experiences. We prevent the possibility of risk and further damage to ourselves.
I’ve spent a long time doing this. I’ve spent a long time avoiding people, avoiding experiences, avoiding anything more than the bare minimums of life. And, for a long time, doing so served it’s purpose.
Only in the past few years have I realized that my keeping everything/one a safe distance away was not only protecting myself from the risks but also preventing any of the benefits. Walls work both ways. They keep all of the painful, negative “stuff” out but they also keep all of the satisfying, positive “stuff” out too.
Dismantling walls (especially those that have stood for extended periods of time) is far from easy. You don’t suddenly go from being heaving guarded to being entirely exposed. Nor would it be a wise idea.
I’ve been working on allowing myself to be more vulnerable. Not recklessly so, but I’ve built such high walls that there have been parts of me that I wouldn’t even allow myself to be exposed to. It’s a frightening process and it’s terribly difficult not to regress backwards in reliving past events or using those past events as evidence against allowing vulnerability.
At this point I so clearly see that the only way I can progress in my journey of self-growth and self-acceptance is to continue to work on my issues of vulnerability. I can’t be angry at the lack of support and people in my life when I’ve honestly not offered any opening for such. Voluntary vulnerability is a manner of trust. In myself and in others.
So here I go, revealing an opening and shining a light on a part of myself I haven’t before. The walls continue to come down.
I love taking pictures of my two daughters and capturing their larger-than-life personalities along with their beauty. I love taking pictures of my pets (2 cats, a black lab and a ferret, in case you were curious). I love taking pictures of my partner and my other family members. And pictures of my friends and their families.
I love capturing moments. Frozen in time. That when I look back on those pictures years later I can recall exactly what was happening in that moment long ago.
I love capturing feelings. Of joy. Of surprise. Of happiness. And even of sadness and sorrow. Because those feelings are genuine and, even in sadness, are beautiful in their unique ways.
But perhaps one of my favorite things to photograph is nature. And the tiny details of life that, if we’re not paying attention to them, we miss. These pictures remind me that sometimes all I need to do is slow down, to take the moment and appreciate all of the little things, the beautiful, amazing things, that I might have otherwise not seen.
A very small selection of little things I captured this year:
Holidays can be a difficult time.
There’s the stress of planning, of cooking a meal, of traveling to destinations. There’s the stress of family. Of gathering everyone together. Of relationships that may be less than ideal. And the feeling of absence of loved ones, either through distance or death.
It’s now been over a year since my father has passed away. This past Halloween was the second year without him and tomorrow will be the second Thanksgiving. People have told me that it will, “get easier” but so far that hasn’t been my experience. I find each holiday, each event and milestone to be equally as difficult as the last.
There’s a constant feeling of, “he should be here.” This past June as I sat at my graduation, waiting to walk for my Early Childhood degree, I had difficulty containing my tears and my emotions. I kept trying to focus on the speakers, on those sitting around me, on the number of seats in the venue… on anything to distract myself from the running thought in my head that he should be here. Because he should have been there. While I was proud of my accomplishments, my feelings of loss were overwhelming.
My feelings of loss exist outside of holidays and milestones. Perhaps this is just another stage of grief. Or perhaps this is a lasting feeling. I mean, I miss my dad and it follows logic that I would feel that loss even more so in times of heightened significance. Holidays. Birthdays. Graduations.
People that play such a vital, important role in our lives surely would be missed. Surely their absence wouldn’t be overlooked. I don’t want to dwell on the sadness of his absence. I don’t want to allow my feelings of sadness to become a surrogate replacement for the place where, “he should be”. So how can I, and others dealing with loss, handle the upcoming holidays (and other milestones) ?
Griefnet.org offers several articles on dealing with grief during the holidays. Below are a few points I found to be particularly helpful:
- Holidays often magnify feelings of loss of a loved one. It is important and natural to experience the sadness that comes. To block such feelings is unhealthy. Keep the positive memory of the loved one alive.
- Often after the first year the people in your life may expect you to be over it. We are never over it but the experience of many bereaved is that eventually they enjoy the holidays again.
- Don’t forget, anticipation of any holiday is so much worse than the actual holiday.
Keeping the positive memory of a loved one alive, by celebrating and remembering them can help to cope with the grief of loss. Here are a few ideas on how to do so:
- Light a candle to honor your loved one, perhaps during holiday gatherings as a reminder of them.
- Create a memory box by asking family members and friends to write down a good memory they have of your loved one. These may be shared as a group or viewed at a later point privately.
- Look at pictures and/or videos of your loved one. Often times these will spark memories and encourage conversation of good times.
- At a gathering, encourage family and friends to make colleges of words and images that remind them of your loved one from old magazines, scissors and glue.
Overall, be gentle with yourself. There is no magic amount of time designated for grieving. There’s also no “right” way you should be feeling. Do what feels comfortable to you and allow yourself to feel however it is you feel.
Some days are filled with frustration. With waiting. With anger. With lack of movement. With lack of change.
Some days, despite our best efforts, we don’t receive the things we need and require. We don’t accomplish the goals we set out to reach.
And we don’t hear the words we need to hear.
On some days, this is due to our own inability to hear them. Those around us are speaking words of praise, acknowledging our accomplishments and our successes. Providing support and encouragement in continuing to succeed and offering constructive criticism in an effort to encourage our growth in those areas. On some days, we are lost in our own minds, our focus elsewhere, and we do not hear all the positive feedback that we receive.
On other days, there is no one speaking words of praise. On these days we must speak praise to ourselves. We must acknowledge our own accomplishments and successes, encouraging ourselves to continue moving forward in our goals. On these days we must be patient with ourselves and realize that despite the lack of outside support and encouragement, we are doing a “good job.” We are doing the best we can and we will continue to do better. We must be kind to ourselves and speak positively of our accomplishments, noticing our strengths and weaknesses while weighing them equally.
At times I become frustrated as I continue to look for praise & approval from those who have never given me such. From those who continually choose to overlook my strengths and instead focus on my weaknesses. I am not perfect. Neither are you or anyone else. We all have our own strengths and our own weaknesses. To focus solely on either, in ourselves and others, is neither kind or productive.
We must try to focus on the strengths in ourselves and others. Constantly receiving negative feedback (about our weaknesses, our failures, our mistakes) while neglecting any positive feedback (about our successes, our accomplishments) doesn’t make us feel good — whether the talk is coming from another person or ourselves. A focus primarily on negatives (even if the goal is improvement) brings our thoughts to “I-can’t-do-it” and provides supporting examples of such beliefs.
Identifying and acknowledging strengths provides a foundation on which we can build on. A focus primarily on strengths provides examples of times we have been successful, allows us to examine how we were able to succeed and empowers us by identifying methods that have previously resulted in success.
I know when I’m told that I’m, “doing a good job” I tend to not believe such. What does “doing a good job” mean? How is it defined? Statements like that are generic and don’t provide any supporting “evidence” that I, or anyone else, really did a good job. In acknowledging success we must be specific. For example, “You did a good job at setting the table. You really paid close attention to where the forks needed to be placed.” Not only did I offer praise but I gave focus to a specific aspect of success and used “you” statements to show objectiveness, rather than “I feel…” or “I think…” statements, which show my subjective view.
We could all benefit from an increased focus on strengths. While there is a space and time for constructive criticism, we as people also need to hear what we are doing well. We need to hear praise and acknowledgement of our accomplishments. We need to hear support and encouragement. We need to hear these things from ourselves but we also need to hear them from those around us.
Can we try to not only focus on the positives, but also communicate them – to others and to ourselves? I truly believe that we are all doing the best we can in this moment, given the knowledge, resources and support we currently have. Let’s tell those around us that we see the accomplishments they’re making and the things they are doing well. Let’s help them build their foundation for continued success and build upon our own in the process.
You may have seen one of these pictures floating around your town. Or on facebook. Or tumblr. Or twitter.
Or maybe you haven’t.
Either way, I love the concept. Take one minute – where ever you are, whatever you’re doing – and just look at the sky.
For that one minute, contemplate how awesome life is.
Right now, as it is.
(Not how it used to be. Or how you wish it would be. Or how it could be.)
Just how awesome life is, right now, in this moment of being alive.
Really. I encourage everyone to do this.
Being mindful in the moment. And grateful, thankful, of just how awesome it truly is.