When reality disappoints us
"The tension between your experience and your expectation is stress." Ed Halliwell
When I heard these words as part of Ed's keynote speech at the Mindful Living Show last summer they really struck a chord with me. And they've stayed with me ever since.
Much of the worry, the stress and the anguish that we feel is generated by the reality of life not matching up to what we want it to be. We imagine things to be a certain way, a scenario to play out as we hope, for life to develop as we plan, and when it doesn't turn out like that (which is often the case) we feel upset, angry, irritated, let down or bewildered. Simply wondering if our experience is going to match our expectation is enough to get our overthinking brains operating in hyperdrive.
This mismatch is a great source of stress. We fight it, wishing and willing and hoping things to be different. For reality to be what we imagined. Even when we know that this is how things are, that our expectations aren't being met, we rail against it, clinging on to how life should be, how it's supposed to be and how unfair it is that life isn't as we want it to be.
We come up against this tension between our experience and our expectation all the time, in tiny and enormous moments in our lives. The disappointment you feel when a day out gets rained off, and the shock and pain you feel when a loved one gets bad news from the doctor, aren't comparable but those feelings are real and we feel stressed by them. We come up against situations where reality fails to match up to our expectation and our hopes are dashed all the time. Learning how to deal with this builds our resilience, making us better able to deal with this stress in the future.
So what can we do about it? How do we manage the stress caused by life not going as we expect?
We first need to realise that the root of this stress isn't what's happening, or not, it's our reaction to it. I know that seems like an odd statement. If you lose the house of your dreams that's pretty stressful and you wouldn't be stressed if everything had gone smoothly and the house was yours. Well, that's what you'd expect, but you don't actually know that for certain. Until we're experiencing it we can't know for sure that anything in life is going to be as expect it. We might be really convinced of it but we don't know it for a fact.
Staying with this example, you expected to complete the purchase of your new home and now that's not happening. You feel sad, disappointed, cross and stressed out because of all the knock-on effects to the rest of your life that this is going to cause. (I remember very clearly, years ago when we were moving from London to Surrey, sitting at the kitchen table sobbing about losing what I thought was going to be our next home and crying, 'Why is this happening to us, it's not unfair'.)
This is our experience and our reaction to it hurts. It's our response – how we deal with this reality that doesn't match our expectation – that makes us feel stressed. We have a say in how we feel (I know that can be hard to believe sometimes but we do) and we can choose how we deal with this new situation we find ourselves in. Continuing to fight against reality, when we're unable to change it, just keeps us stuck in the stress, and stops us moving forward. We can acknowledge that this is not what we want, that we feel cheated and angry and upset, and that this is really tough for us to deal with. There's no point in pretending everything's rosy when it's not, denying life's challenges and our feelings is not a good idea.
We can't control the situation or the people involved (however much we might wish it) so what can we exert our own power over? What we do next.
We can choose to let go of our expectation. No-one can keep us tied to it or release us from it but ourselves. Depending on the situation it can be painful to make that admission and to say goodbye to a hope we held so we need to be kind to ourselves as we do it. It may take time, the period of adjustment is relatable to the circumstances and the impact it has on lives.
And then, when we're ready, we decide how we're going to deal with this reality we find ourselves in. It may be that we make new plans or that we take a break and do nothing. We may not be able to see a clear path forwards so it could be a case of figuring out the first step only.
What's important is that we have recognised that our experience has failed to match up to our expectation, that we've acknowledged how we feel, that we've chosen to let go of what we hoped, assumed or expected, and that we are dealing with the reality of life as it is right now. And by doing so we reduce the tension and lower the stress we feel.
This process applies to any moment, however big or small, where our experience doesn't meet our expectation. It isn't easy, it's not a magical wand to wave and make everything better. But practising it with the smaller disappointments in life will help you to build your awareness of this tension so you can recognise when the mismatch is causing you stress, drop your expectation and deal with your experience as it is.