“What do I do when I can’t get what I most want?”
When you are blocked from a major life goal, having a great job, loving relationship, getting pregnant, or owning a house, you will likely feel stressed and helpless. This is even more likely if your friends, family members, or neighbors all seem to have what you want. You may conclude that life is unfair or even feel like a failure or undeserving of love or success. You may begin to see things in black and white terms—feeling like you have nothing while others have it all. Often, feeling deprived may trigger prior experiences of emotional suffering, such as being excluded from the popular group at school or not getting enough attention and support from busy parents. Eventually, you may end up with a negative script or story about yourself in which you can never get what you want and are doomed to a life of loneliness and failure.
What you don’t realize is that this story is not true—when our negative stories get activated, we focus on the negative aspects of our lives and minimize the positive. We forget to be grateful for what we have or proud of what we have survived. If parts of the story are true, it may be because buying into this negative story is keeping you stuck in repetitive negative patterns such as accepting bad treatment because you are scared to be alone or of not trying a different approach when it’s clear that your present strategy is not working. You may not learn to be flexible and adaptable—updating your expectations, outlook, and coping strategies to deal with new situations or new information about your current situation. When faced with frustration from important goals, your brain’s “fight-flight-freeze” response gets triggered, urging you to do something immediately to change the situation (fight), to run away and avoid dealing with it (flight), or keeping you stuck in feelings of defeat and helplessness (freeze). This is your brain’s primitive, wired-in response, which, unfortunately, leads to unhelpful ways of coping. Fortunately, there is a better alternative. When what you are doing is not working, you need to change something and you have a couple of options.
Change Your Expectations
Life is a not a Hollywood movie that has the inevitable happy ending. It is possible that your expectations are not realistic, given your current abilities, skills, situation, or efforts. When I was in my mid-20s, I felt thwarted in finding love, despite putting myself out there and taking advantage of every opportunity. Unfortunately, I faced a barrier in that the ratio of women to men in the city I lived in was seven to one. I eventually decided to leave that city and move to a place where the odds were in my favor. Had I decided to stay, I would need to change my expectations of success in love to “maybe” and instead learn to be satisfied with all the other good things in my life. Similarly if you are over the age of 50 and can’t find that job with a six figure income, you may need to consider other options, such as building your own consulting business or living more frugally. Giving up on a dream is often a painful transition that involves sadness and mourning, but can lead to peace and acceptance.
A popular quote states that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. There are situations in which it makes sense to persist and keep trying. If you’ve received feedback from reliable sources that your writing is good, it makes sense not to give up if you don’t get published on first submission. The author of Harry Potter was turned down many times before getting a break. With highly desired and scarce outcomes, persistence is necessary until you find a matching opportunity. On the other hand, many people persist with approaches that are clearly flawed and not working for them. Trying to get a commitment out of somebody who is clearly love-avoidant, married to someone else, or not ready is like hitting your head against a brick wall.
Set a spoken or unspoken deadline for commitment and then move on. I watched an episode of Shark Tank the other night in which an entrepreneur refused to change approach despite feedback from all the billionaire investors that paid advertising was not the way to go with their product. Determination to succeed is not enough, if you are not willing to learn and adapt. In this case, the entrepreneur missed a great opportunity to grow her business.
You may be stuck on a fixed idea of what will make you happy, such as earning a certain salary, a house in a certain area, a certain type of love relationship, or a certain number of kids. Over time, you may experience barriers that make these goals not achievable or the cost of achieving them too high. For example, the executive job may entail such extensive travel demands that you have to assign childcare of your infant to a nanny. Or holding onto your house may mean you have no money to spend on day-to-day stress relief, vacations, or emergencies. You may be over 40 and need to do in vitro fertlization to get pregnant and you may not want to go through the cost and uncertainty. Or you may not meet your soulmate, despite making every effort and you don’t have the means to move or change your situation. In these cases, you have a choice to remain stuck or to accept the reality that your initial goal is just not achievable right now.
If the cost is too high or the goal out of reach, the healthy thing to do is to let go and change your way of looking at the situation. You could define your goal more broadly, such as having a loving connection with kids, rather than having kids of your own. Or building a full, independent life as a single person while you keep looking for love, but don’t rely on finding it as your only plan. Remaining cognitively flexible and adaptable to the flow of life makes you resilient to life’s changes and disappointments. You still feel the pain, but you don’t add extra layers of suffering to it by remaining stuck or feeling victimized.
Life inevitably involves suffering and disappointment. Psychological maturity involves learning to navigate the roadblocks and challenges life throws at you. As Charles Darwin once said: “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” When you don’t get what you want, you need to either change strategies or learn to want what you have.
For more coping strategies to use when you face loss or disappointment, read this companion article: http://marinpsychologist.blogspot.com/2014/03/six-things-to-do-when-life-disappoints.html
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