When there is a gap between who we are now and who we want to be, (in fancy language- when there is a difference between our real and ideal self), this creates energy. That energy is coming from the feeling of distress. What we do with that distress COMPLETELY changes what happens next!
A relatable example of this is the Mid-life crisis. Between our 40’s and 60’s, we naturally take stock of where we are, relative to where we thought we would be at that point. When we don’t like the answer…if we are in a rut in our marriage, unhappy at work, lack intimacy, or lack a connection with ourselves so we aren’t really passionate about much etc., we get agitated. This tends to happen when we have not been living our values, when we have not been honest with the people who matter in our lives, or with ourselves. So when we take stock and realize that we have been living to keep OTHER PEOPLE happy – it does not sit well! Distress is created and we don’t like that feeling!
Remember though, that negative feedback (physical or emotional) is just a signalling system inviting us to take action to fix the situation. (See The 2 min-metaphor that can change your life for a a refresher).
So at this point we have a choice…if we sit with that uncomfortable feeling, it will grow and will eventually reach a critical mass that will actually move us forward. It will help us take steps to create a life we are excited to live. Unfortunately, many of us don’t want to face that feeling, so we beat ourselves up, which literally uses up that energy and keeps us stuck longer! OR we distract ourselves from the distress, through drinking, sex, being a workoholic, spending hours on kijiji, twitter, tumblr or Facebook etc. This also keeps us stuck longer because it takes a lot longer for that distress to reach that critical level to move us forward, towards taking action to fix the situation.
Sometimes, we react by trying to convince ourselves and others that we are still good-enough, or we try to anchor to a time we felt stronger by trying to relive our youth. This may mean that we start dressing inappropriately for our age, partying with people who are much younger than us or investing in status symbols like fancy cars or getting plastic surgery. (Please note, there are other healthy reasons to pursue these things, they are not inherently unhealthy, they just happen to be common go-to’s in this particular context).
At other times we get angry at the people in our life who we think we have been living FOR– at our own expense. (Note: this often happens without the other person even knowing this is how we felt). In these cases, we start acting out in passive-aggressive ways. Some people have affairs, detach, or become really irritable with their family, friends or co-workers. Others may have a complete change in their personality and behaviour- former suit and tie people are getting tattoos and piercings or vice-versa. Often this comes from a fear that we missed out, don’t know who we are (and need to try things on to see what fits) or have to make up for lost time.
If we were raised with the message that we are most likely to have our needs met and feel safe when other people are emotionally ok, we learn to focus our attention on keeping other people happy. Unfortunately, that becomes a rigid safety-map and we throw ourselves under the bus in the process. When we realize we have been a doormat, which was coming from fear of not feeling safe- it is human nature for the pendulum to swing to the other extreme (which is also coming from fear), before we settle on focusing on what is healthiest for us.
Note that feeling like we have been a doormat or inauthentic can be in a particular aspect of our life only, like in intimate relationships, it is not necessarily true across all domains. Often people will be very successful professionally but feel they are not bringing their A-game home or vice-versa.
So what to do about all of this, especially since that gap between the real and ideal doesn’t only show up in mid-life? It comes back to all change starts with AWARENESS and taking where we are at as FEEDBACK vs evaluation.
FEEDBACK is non-judgmental acceptance and curiosity about what is going on for us vs EVALUATION is judging it as bad. This tends to throw us into more unhealthy coping because we activate “old brain” and activates our threat appraisal system (see Old Brain, New Brain and Mindfulness for a refresher).
So if you want to move forward, sit with the awareness that you are not where you want to be, allow that critical mass to build and remember that not everything that hurts us is harmful.
For a great talk about the danger of not bringing our authentic, strong and healthy self into a relationship and having hard conversations, check out this 11 min Ted talk by Ash Beckham!
Have a great week!