Sunday, August 26, 2012


It's not unusual to feel certain emotions without knowing why.  Disappointment is not one of those emotions.  When we feel disappointed, we almost always know what caused it...

Disappointment stems from positive expectations that never materialize or from desires that are left unfulfilled.  We expect something to go a certain way and it doesn't; we feel disappointed.  We want something badly but aren't able to have it; we feel disappointed. 

Ideally and over time, we can learn to transcend disappointment.  To do this, we must let go of our attachment to ideas about how things "should" be.  When we stop clinging to our expectations, we are able to accept with equanimity whatever the present moment contains. 

Many people never realize this truth.  Even among those who strive to let go of expectations, there are few who will attain this ideal.   As a result, the great majority of us will continue to experience disappointment throughout our lives -- disappointment in ourselves, in our circumstances, in outcomes, and in others.  For us, the task becomes finding a way to work through disappointment so that we can move past it. 

Disappointment is one of those emotions that can become toxic if left unaddressed.  Long term, chronic disappointment in oneself leads to feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing.  Enduring disappointment in someone close to us causes anger and resentment towards that person.  Perpetual disappointment in life or its circumstances leads to feelings of hopelessness and despair.  These emotional states can quickly develop into habitual ways of relating to ourselves, other people, and the world. 

These are all things I know and can pass on to others without difficulty.  It is one thing to know; it is another to do...which is what I am struggling with now. 

I believe that acceptance is the antidote to disappointment.  To feel disappointed is to wish the present moment to be something other than it is.  Therefore, the first step in overcoming disappointment is to accept reality as it is.

Sometimes letting go of disappointment feels like giving up.  For example, if we give up on pushing our child to work hard and be responsible (because we've had so many arguments about it but nothing ever changes) are we giving up on our child?  It can certainly feel that way. 

But isn't the pushing just a way to avoid facing our disappointment?  Isn't it our attempt to get our child to do what is right so that we can be proud of him?  Nobody wants to say, "My son dropped out of school and refuses to get a job."  To have invested so much of our time, energy, and love into raising a child who then refuses to become a productive member of society is a great disappointment.  So we refuse to accept it.  We push our child to do what is right.  We will not allow our child to fail.  It is simply not acceptable. 

What happens when we do this for months and then years without success?  We've probably had so many fights with our kid about it that he's stopped coming to visit.  We worry about it constantly and think about what else we can do to change things.  We feel angry at and resentful towards our child for letting us down.  In short, we suffer.

This is when it becomes time to accept.  Sticking with my example, the time has come to accept that our child is a bit lazy and doesn't care much about becoming a productive member of society.  Yes, it's disappointing; but once we've stopped trying to change our child and have accepted him as he is, we can then grieve the loss of what we wanted him to become. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

My (Blended) Family

My house feels eerily empty right now.  My stepdaughter spent nine weeks with me and my husband this summer.  This is almost twice as long as she was able to stay last summer and it's the longest we've had her at any one time.  She lives in South Carolina and we live in Virginia, so during the school year she stays with us every other weekend, alternate Thanksgivings, half of Christmas Break, and the week of Spring Break.  When she stays for a weekend, there's barely enough time to get used to her being here before it's time for her to go back to her mom's.  When she stays for extended periods of time we get comfortable.  We settle into a routine that's different from the one my husband and I follow when it's just the two of us.  Normally, I tend to like a lot of "me" time.  When my stepdaughter is here, it forces me outside of myself and into the world.  I consciously spend less time hiding out by myself and more time interacting with her.

It's not so bad when my stepdaughter goes back to her mother's after spending just a weekend with us.  Weekends are always set aside for spending time with family and friends anyway.  When my stepdaughter goes back to her mother's after staying with us the entire summer her absence is profound.  There's no one to tease about moving so slowly in the mornings.  There are no cute little outfits to lay out because there is no little person to wear them.  No one runs out to my car as I leave for work to wave goodbye.  No one needs me to answer random questions about how the world works.  No one asks me to pick them up by their feet so they can hang upside down.  There is no one to join in when I tease my husband.  No one needs me to braid their hair or to pick out a hair tie that matches their clothes.  There is no one watching the Disney Channel when I come home from the gym; I am greeted by a silent television and an empty room. 

So right now my house feels empty, although it is not.  My husband and I are there, doing what we always do.  I've always savored our quiet evenings together.  I'm sure I will come to enjoy them again.  Right now, though, the house is just a little too quiet...

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Everyone has something they're really good at, right?  Isn't that what we tell our children when they begin to cultivate interests and hobbies?  We encourage them to try their hand at a variety of extracurricular activities.  Some children immediately find something they do well.  Others try a little bit of everything but just can't seem to find their niche.  "Keep trying," we tell them.  "Everyone's good at something.  You just haven't found your talent yet."

A patient sat in my office not too long ago.  She was struggling with feelings of inadequacy and depression.  "I'm not good at anything," she lamented.  Like most of us, she'd been told since childhood that everyone has some sort of talent.  "Keep looking," people told her.  "Don't give up."  My patient, now in her late 20's, never "found" her talent.  As a result, she concluded that something must be wrong with her, that she was somehow lacking. 

I could empathize with this patient.  There was a point in my life -- shortly after I graduated college and started my first "real" job -- when I came to the same realization about myself: I'm not really good at anything.  I am, of course, better at some things than others; like everyone, I have strengths and weaknesses.  There are even a few areas in which my performance is probably above average.  I cannot, however, think of any one thing I can do so well that I stand out from the crowd. 

And I think that's true for about 95% of us.  Theoretically, most human abilities follow a normal distrubution.  This means that for any given skill, most of us will possess an (approximately) average aptitude.  About 68% of us will fall solidly within the "average" range (i.e., within one standard deviation from the mean).  Approximately 13.6% of us will fall within the "above average" range (i.e., within two standard deviations above the mean); another 13.6% will fall into the "below average" range (i.e., within two standard deviations below the mean).  Altogether, this accounts for 95% of all people.  Therefore, for any given talent, skill, or ability, only about 0.1% of people perform at the "exceptional" level (three or more standard deviations above the mean). 

The point is, there is only a very small minority of people who we can say truly excel at a given skill.  The rest of us tend to be average, slightly above average, or slightly below average. 

I wonder, then, if we aren't setting our children up for disappointment when we tell them that everyone has something at which they excel.  It might not be so bad for the 13.6% of kids who end up being "above average" at one thing or another, but what about the other 83+% who are just "average" or even "below average?"  Are we instilling in our children the belief that it's not okay to be "average?"  If we assure our children that they will find their place to shine but then they never do, are they going to end up feeling like they're somehow inadequate?

As a child, I remember thinking that I was meant to do great things.  I believed I was somehow "special" and that I was going to have a significant impact on the world.  Children are naturally egocentric so it's not unusual for them to feel special.  Ideally, they grow up to learn that while their wants and needs are important, they are no more important than the wants and needs of others.  Unfortunately, this doesn't always  happen, especially in today's world. 

People today tend to have far fewer children than did people who lived 100 years ago.  The parental energy and attention that at one time was divided among many children is now devoted to one or two.  Many parents put their children at the center of their world, often sacrificing more than a healthy share of their own wants and needs.  We tell our children that not only are they special to us, but that they are special in general.  We heap excessive amoutns of praise upon our children in an effort to build their self confidence.  We tell our children that they can do anything and that they should never allow anyone to stand in the way of their dreams. 

We mean well.  We want our children to grow into confident, successful adults.  We want them to reach for the stars and to lead happy and fulfilling lives.  But I wonder if we might have gone overboard. 

It wasn't until I became an adult that it hit me: I'm no more special than anyone else.  I began to realize that I will probably never create or achieve anything that will radically change the world I can, however, make a significant and meaningful contribution to society, even if it's nothing extraordinary.  I had to adjust my expectations, but I eventually reached the conclusion that it's okay to be ordinary.  I don't have to do anything great to live a meaningful life; I just have to be myself.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Most would agree that human beings seem to be hardwired to seek happiness.  It appears to be an innate impulse (although in reality, it is impossible to say whether the first humans displayed this tendency).  Whether instinctual or acquired, the pursuit of happiness is practically universal among humans of the modern era.  In today's world, almost everything we do is in some way motivated by our desire to lead lives that are both happy and fulfilled.

Unfortunately, for many of us, happiness can be quite elusive.  This is especially true in Western cultures.  Modern Western societies tend to be obsessed with doing, achieving, and posessing.  We look for happiness in external activties, concrete achievements, and material posessions.  Unfortunately, evidence suggests that living this way does not make people happy.  Instead, it breeds malaise, discontent, and chronic feelings of restlessness.

Restlessness is propelled by a desire to be somewhere other than here, doing something other than the activity in which you are currently engaged.  It is a state characterized by unease and agitation. 

When people seek happiness from external sources, restlessness is the inevitable result.  When we believe happiness exists out there in the world then that is where we search for it.  We identify something we think will bring happiness and we set about trying to achieve or obtain it.  When we get it, we initially experience intense feelings of pride, satisfaction, and pleasure.  "Now," we say to ourselves.  "Now I can be happy." 

Unfortunately, our pleasure is always short-lived.  Once the novelty wears off, we realize that we feel no differently than we did before.  The thing we wanted so badly has not brought us happiness.  We feel restless, so we begin to search for something else we believe will make us happy.  The cycle continues. 

Restlessness is not a particularly comfortable feelilng, especially when it becomes a daily presence in our lives.  The natural reaction to something unpleasant is to try to get rid of it.  Restlessness is alleviated by movement.  We seek happiness, come up short, and move on to look for it somewhere else.  Perhaps we leave our spouse or begin a new romance.  Maybe we quit our job, sell our home, or move to a new city.  Or we might get a new haircut, buy a new wardrobe, and adopt a new look.  We're restless so we move, however we choose to do it. 

We look outside of ourselves for happiness; we will never find it there and so will always feel restless.  All humans have the drive to seek happiness; our restlessness spurs us to continue on this quest.

Our quest becomes much easier if we look in the right place.  Happiness comes from within...

Of course that's a bit cliche', is it not?  It's all well and good to say that happiness comes from within, but what does that mean exactly?

The first thing we have to do is stop moving.  In her article "Boredom - The Gateway to Peace," Joan Brooks explains that we must learn to do nothing.  Westerners tend to feel compelled to always be doing something.  If we remain idle for too long, we begin thinking about all the things we could, should, or would rather be doing.  There is no stillness because we don't pause long enough for our minds and our bodies to settle.  As soon as we feel bored or restless, we're on the go again.  Brooks suggests that instead of bolting into action when restlessness arises, we "need to slow down and find some peace and serenity."  This will undoubtedly be quite difficult to do, at least initially.  Over time, however, we learn to sit with our feelings, without trying to change them.  Eventually, we learn to let go, relax, and just be.

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