(The weight of) Great Expectations - a Dickensian mashup
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
While Dickens wrote this in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, the quote seems to fit what is so often an experience of the upcoming holidays…’tis the season of family, gratitude and joy; it can also be a time of depression, anxiety and isolation for many.
The weight of expectations. Powerful stories about what should be that are often quite far removed from what is. I hear from many of my clients that they should be happier, they should be more grateful. I hear them but wonder: maybe what they’re actually saying is that they want to be happier, they want to be more grateful - and the truth is, they’re not.
For many of us, this weight of expectation - so often introduced when we are very young - ends up feeling intrinsic, like part of us - an impossible burden that we believe we are simply destined to carry. As kids we may learn to act a certain way, to believe in certain things, to accept as moral and ethical all that our parents, caregivers and society tell us is true. And we accept this - no questions asked.
In Gestalt theory these are called ‘introjects’ - ‘truths’ we are given that we may swallow without question, and live with until they feel like they are part of us. They make up the ground from which we start and as we mature and develop we keep what resonates and discard what doesn’t. However, a problem occurs if we get stuck somewhere in this cycle, and continue to accept that what we’ve been told is true without discrimination.
How do we know? How do you know which are your beliefs and which are legacy, gifted to you by someone else? The best indicator that you’re carrying someone else’s truth is ‘should’. Our family holiday should look [this way]. I should be providing ‘X’ for my kids. My relationship should be like [fill in the blank here]. The problem with ‘should’ is that it obfuscates what is - and if we can’t see what we’re dealing with, how can we hope to make changes? How do we even know if we WANT to change it? And the worst part: even if we miraculously manage to achieve the ‘should’ it may not satisfy, because it wasn’t really our objective to start with.
My point: our ‘shoulds’ mask what is and make it impossible for us to see our lives for the way they truly are. Enslaved to our ‘shoulds’ we may find we carry a vague but very powerful sense of failure or uncertainty. Lack of clarity makes it hard to know why we’re doing what we’re doing, or for whom. We might find that we are not even in the equation. And this can get in the way of happiness, of contentment and of gratitude.
So as we go into this whirlwind season of giving and of goodwill, maybe take a few moments for yourself. If the weight of expectations starts to get you down, listen for those ‘shoulds’. Dickens also said: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” But isn’t the best way to do for someone else, to first do for yourself?
How are you feeling about the holidays? What are some of your ‘shoulds’? I invite you to share below.