A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Life Is a Series of Trade-offs

When enough really is enough

I remember the day well, the day when my analyst broke the news to me that I couldn't have it all.  I was shocked.  I didn't want to believe him.  Isn't that what we were promised?  Isn't life supposed to be a series of endless possibilities?  Isn't that the American dream?

But when I stopped to think about it, I realized that he was right.  You can't have it all.  You can't have all the advantages of the single life and be married.  You can't have all the advantages of having children and have lots of time for yourself or your career.  You can't take a lot of risks and enjoy a sense of safety.  You can't have a busy weekend and get lots of rest.  You can't be a leader and be free of responsibility.  You can't speak up and remain anonymous.  There are just some things that don't go together.  Life is a series of trade-offs. 

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I'm sure that there are exceptions to this general rule, but many aspects of psychological life are like physics.  You can't have an up and a down at the same time.  You must choose.  It's one way or the other.  Now, just like physics, it is true that life isn't an all-or-nothing proposition.  It is more complex than that.  Life is lived in the relative balance not the extremes.  You can have some of many things that you want out of life, especially if you consider having these different aspects of life over time.  But, that being said, you must make choices.  You must lean in a direction.  And in so doing, you can't have it all.

If we expect to "have it all" in life, we will live in a perpetual state of frustration and disappointment.  Some will handle this by striving harder and harder, endlessly pursuing perfection in a way that undermines their feelings of satisfaction in what they do have.  Others will be locked in a state of paralysis in which they can't choose a path at all, because choosing to have something means choosing to not have something else.  In either case, what you do have is never felt to be enough.   

Luckily, there is freedom to be found if we can accept life on life's terms.  At any given time in our lives, we each must choose a path.  If we accept the reality that life is a series of trade-offs, then we can commit ourselves to a particular path without too much grief, resentment, or disappointment.  We can appreciate the satisfactions of the path we have chosen, knowing that we do not have to have everything in order to have something good.  And if we choose a path and call it good, we open up even more possibilities for growth and satisfaction.

This attitude brings a strange kind of relief.  By accepting limitations, we can make do with what we have.  I'm not talking about accepting mediocrity or resigning ourselves to unhappiness.  No, I'm talking about the deep satisfactions that come when we recognize the good of what we do have and build upon it.  Only then can we feel grateful for the rewards of the path we have chosen.  Then we can be set free from the paralysis of "never enough" and move forward to "good enough."  Moreover, if we can enjoy the good of our own lives and call it enough, then we can also enjoy the successes of other people without feeling too diminished by them.

This attitude is a building block to peace of mind which, underneath it all, is what most of us are really after anyway.

Copyright 2011 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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