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Why Parents Aren’t Happy

We say [‘I’m SO BUSY’] to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a trophy, our ability to withstand stress a real mark of character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others.”–Wayne Muller

This video is the 3rd in a series about being happier as a parent from the Raising Happiness Homestudy. Watch the rest of the videos here.


Video Notes:

We can’t do our best raising our children without being happy, and we can’t be happy if we are too busy to enjoy life. So this week our practice is to focus on cutting back and saying no.

(1) First, take notice:

  • What types of activities routinely make you feel “crazybusy”?
  • What types of things are you doing out of obligation or routine, that you feel you should do, but that don’t bring you (or your kids) joy?
  • What do you do because you are afraid of missing out?
  • What “extras” do you have in your life that you wouldn’t miss if you took them out?

(2) Get out your axe. Start systematically pulling things off your calendar.

(3) Plan for the future.

  • Make rules for yourself so you don’t end up back where you started, e.g., no email after 9:00 pm.
  • Get support from your friends, your own parents, or your spouse.
  • Script and practice saying no.
  • Clear roadblocks. Is there someone in your life whose expectations might make your life more difficult? Who is imposing “should dos”? Talk with them directly about your happiness and the happiness of your children. Then listen to yourself, not them.

audio_icon-100x100If you would like to download the audio version of this video to listen to in your car or on the go, click the link below.
DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO VERSION HERE.


This post is taken from “The Raising Happiness Homestudy,” an online course I created as a companion to my book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. I’m sharing one “class” from this online course per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this Raising Happiness Homestudy tag. Enjoy!

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Overwork… Doesn’t Work

This post is from a series about the ideal worker archetype in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

We can check our email before breakfast (and while we wait in line for our lattes), and make calls during our commute. Most of us can keep working straight through lunch while we eat–how wonderfully productive is that? And after dinner, we can log back in and KEEP WORKING when our grandparents back in the day might have been, say, conversing with a neighbor or spouse or child. Or perhaps reading a book. For pleasure.

workhome_CMYK
Gemma Correll commissioned by JetBlue for Humankinda

The truth is super hard for us to hear: Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. For most of the 20th century, the broad consensus (among the management gurus) was that “working more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive–and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot,” writes Sara Robinson, a consultant at Cognitive Policy Works who specializes in trend analysis and social change theories.

Moreover, according to Robinson, more than a HUNDRED YEARS of research shows that “every hour you work over 40 hours a week [will make] you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.” Really! Even, or maybe especially, for knowledge workers!

Why? The human brain did not evolve to operate like a computer that gets switched on and can run indefinitely without a break. Just as a fruit tree does not bear fruit 365 days a year, human beings are only productive in cycles of work and rest.

So if we are to be our most productive, successful, and joyful selves, we must create a new cultural archetype for the ideal worker. One that is based on the biology we actually have and the way that we actually are able to work. That is exactly what we are doing in this course.

Choices to make

This idea will be threatening to the people around you who still strive to be ideal workers. But sticking with the status quo—a life of unrelenting work—will break your heart slowly, as one of my clients so aptly put it. True happiness and fulfillment, it turns out, are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.

To develop our multiple talents, we must stray from the herd of our cultural archetypes. This can be terrifying and disorienting—after all, humans are deeply social animals, so our nervous system sends distress signals when we break from our group. But we will not find flow by conforming to unrealistic ideals or outdated stereotypes. We’ll find it by allowing ourselves to be complex and divergent–our most authentic, balanced selves.


This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing one “lesson” from this online class per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

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Want to Feel Appreciated on Mother’s Day?

Here’s an icky confession: I used to dread Mother’s Day.

When I first became a mother, the holiday somehow left me feeling unappreciated. I tended to get in a funk, and not out of grief or some sort of well-defined pain — I can only imagine how hard Mother’s Day must be for someone who has lost their mother. I felt bad in a bratty way, like a toddler who is pissed that she’s not getting what she wants. The worst version of myself has typically made her appearance, ironically, on the day that we were supposed to be celebrating my best, most beloved, self.

What is it that left me so resentful on Mother’s Day? What did I want so much that I wasn’t getting?

Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was about gratitude. I wanted to be appreciated on Mother’s Day in the way that we used to show appreciation to my mother. Research shows that when we express gratitude in our relationships, we become more attuned to our family member’s efforts on our behalf. I was hoping for a little more attunement to all the work I do as a mom — mostly from my husband, but also the kids.

Until last year, I always dreaded — no, hated — Mother’s Day. Click To Tweet

At least the way I remember it (I’m a little afraid to ask my mom for verification; it just now occurred to me that my memory is probably a little rosy), we’d bring my mom breakfast in bed, showering her with homemade cards and gifts. My dad would give my mom a funny card and a gift that he’d bought. We’d take a family bike ride on the path around St. Mary’s College, with a picnic that my dad and I packed with help from the deli at Black’s Market. Norman Rockwell could’ve painted us.

None of that actually seems hard to recreate, but for the love of God my family has never even come close. The worst Mother’s Day I ever had was the year that I lowered my expectations and then laid them out clearly for my husband. “I’m fine with no gifts,” I explained, “So long as there are cards and a family activity.” This did not happen. 

For the record, three of the four children made me BEAUTIFUL, heartfelt Mother’s Day cards. They were practically set to music they were so thoughtful and moving.

But that was not enough for me.

Expectations, even low ones, are a tricky thing. Unfulfilled, they set us up to ruin what is actually happening by ruminating over what we think ought to be happening. Painful thoughts — How could he not do this for me given all I do for this family??! Does he not appreciate me at all? — start to loop endlessly, triggering waves of disappointment.

So how could I, once and for all, make Mother’s Day different? I had already lowered my expectations to no material gifts, and that didn’t help me much; I’m not sure I can lower them to nothing. In past years, I’ve made a massive effort to focus on myself less by helping others, but ultimately, even that didn’t really prevent me from feeling unappreciated myself. I felt entitled to a little gratitude, dammit.

(Let’s not miss the irony here: Entitlement is the opposite of gratitude. Rarely do we attract the opposite of what we feel. Just as we don’t foster other people’s love by lashing out at them, my unbridled sense of entitlement wasn’t exactly generating a mountain of appreciation.)

Emotional traps like this — obsessing over my feelings of unmet expectations — are usually triggered by a mistaken belief. So where was the error in my thinking?

I really was feeling unappreciated by my husband, Mark. I felt like I sacrificed more for our family and children, and that he should recognize and feel grateful for that. I held a deep seated conviction that I gave more. I spent more time doing the hardest parenting work, creating and enforcing structure and discipline, managing the near-constant drama of life with three teenage girls and an active adolescent boy.

Now, I should mention that, according to research, I am not alone in believing that I do more for our family than Mark — but I might not be correct. When researchers add up the percent of work each person in a couple says he or she does, they consistently find that the total ends up being more than 100 percent. So if a mom says she does 65 percent of the household work, and her husband says he contributes a solid 50 percent . . . there is a 15 percent error in there somewhere. Perhaps this was the heart of my mistaken belief?

My Mother’s Day funk did grow out of my belief that I do and sacrifice more for our family than my husband does. And weirdly, I somehow thought that this seemingly massive imbalance could be righted through a Mother’s Day display of profound appreciation.

This is funny to me now, because clearly even the most magical Mother’s Day outing would not dissolve my resentment. We needed to deal with the source of my bitterness.

“We need counseling,” I announced to Mark. I sat down to work through what I wanted help resolving. What did I want Mark to do differently?

What I found, when I really thought hard about it, was that my assumptions about our division of labor were blatantly untrue. Believe me, I was shocked by this revelation. But it turned out that I had loads of evidence suggesting I don’t do more for our family than Mark.

True, I do the bulk of the emotional labor. But he does nearly all the house and garden maintenance. We spend about the same amount of time in the car driving kids around. I plan our meals and cook; he shops and cleans up. We’ve got a division of labor where he does the things he likes to do best (like mowing the lawn) while I get to do the things that I love to do (like talking to the kids about their feelings). I am lucky to have a truly equal partnership.

I was harboring resentment out of habit rather than reality.

At times, being a mother can feel so overwhelming; when the kids were little, I sometimes felt a little victimized by it all, a little trapped by the sheer magnitude of the way they’d taken over my life. My husband simply couldn’t do many of the things that I was doing. Pregnancy, labor and delivery, and breastfeeding bred loads of occasions when only mama would do. My family could never repay me for the sacrifices I’d made for them — but they could, and should, show me a little gratitude for it. Hence my feelings of entitlement to a little Mother’s Day appreciation.

Billy Collin’s wrote a poem about this. In it, Collins recounts the thousands of meals his mom made him, and the good education she provided, and all the other zillions of things she did for him. In return he gave her . . . a lanyard he made at camp. Collins concludes:

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.”

Now, this is what I wish to tell my children and husband both: We are even, with or without lanyards and family outings on Mother’s Day.

Because I am not trapped. I have not been victimized. There is no need for reparation. You don’t owe me a darn thing, even gratitude. I don’t have to do any of the many things I do for you or our family. I choose to do them. I do them because I love each of you so very much. Moreover, this love that I feel for you is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. It is a great joy to be a mother in this family, your family. I’m deeply, profoundly grateful for all we are and all we have — together.

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Why Parents’ Happiness Is Important

“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”
–Thich Nhat Hanh

This video the 2nd in a series about being happier as a parent from The Raising Happiness Homestudy. Watch the first video here.

Notes for the upcoming week:

This week, record your “bright spots” throughout the day and week. Bright spots are activities or times when you feel bliss, joy, play, fun, flow, etc. And then consider: How can you add more bright spots to your life?

As an example, I feel total bliss if I wake up a few minutes early, make myself a cup of coffee, and let myself read before the rest of the family comes downstairs for breakfast. This is a bright spot for me, and so I know I can’t stay up late the night before if I want to wake up early.

With my kids, my bright spot is bedtime: cuddling (well, when they were littler…now I take what I can get) reading together on their beds, talking about “three good things” from our day. I miss this time when I give a talk at night, and so I reschedule it for after school: I leave work early, pick up the kids, and we hang out together until I need to leave for my talk.

Sometimes it’s not about adding something blissful to the calendar, but instead transforming existing activities, e.g., afternoons with the kids, into something that we enjoy more.

Join the Discussion
We can also clone bright spots from other people, or other parts of our lives. Please post your bright spots in the discussion here so that others get ideas.


This post is taken from “The Raising Happiness Homestudy,” an online course I created as a companion to my book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. I’m sharing one “class” from this online course per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this Raising Happiness Homestudy tag. Enjoy!

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Christine Carter - 5 Steps to End Your Email Addiction

5 Ways to Tame Compulsive Checking

Next Week, April 30-May 6, is Screen-Free Week!

Before you think, “I can’t be screen free a whole week,” bear with me. It is SUPER worth-while to consider doing a digital detox every once in a while. Why?

Research suggests that screen time (especially social media usage) leads to unhappiness. Three recent studies all found basically the same thing: The more people used Facebook, the lower their happiness (or the higher their loneliness and depression) was when researchers assessed them again. It’s important to note that it’s not that people who were feeling unhappy used social media more; it’s that Facebook caused their unhappiness.

The more people used Facebook, the lower their happiness (or the higher their loneliness and depression) #screenfreeweek Click To Tweet

Most of us can’t give up screens at work, or if we are in school, but we can give up digital entertainment and social media for a week. This will free up tons of time (and don’t we all want more time?). Let’s read! And stare into space! And most importantly: Connect with family and friends!

Even if we can’t go completely screen free, we can reduce our exposure. It’s easy to spend most of our entire waking existence monitoring our email and social media feeds. We can begin the day by turning off the alarm on our phone . . . and then checking our messages. Before we are out of bed. And then we can bring our phones–and our feeds–with us to the bathroom. And we check again at breakfast. Once at work, the emailing continues–before, during, and after meetings. Lunch? We “catch up” on email or Facebook. For most people, the checking continues long into the evening, well after we’ve left the office.

Does this sound familiar? If so, here are five steps that will help you check less, but work — and play — more.

Step 1: Decide what to do instead of checking constantly. If you are going to spend less time monitoring your email (and social media feeds, and anything else that is constantly nagging you for attention), what would be more productive or joyful for you? My clients often want to spend more time doing focused, intelligent, creative work during the day, and more time relaxing, exercising, and hanging out with their families before and after work. Actually block off time on your calendar for stuff like “Read with hubby” or “Do focused writing/thinking.”

Step 2: Schedule two or three specific times to check your email and messages during the day. I check my email first thing in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. Here is the key: Block off enough time to get all the way to the bottom of your inbox in one way or another. If a particular email is going to take more than 5 minutes to read and respond to, I put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to my task list. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily.

Step 3: Turn off all your alerts. Unless you are actively checking your email and messages, you don’t need to know what communication is coming in because you’ll be devoting your full attention to something else. So turn off all notifications on your desktop, laptop, tablet, and smartphone. Vibrate counts; turn it off. Now do this for your text messages and all of your social media feeds. Breathe. (Note: Even if, through the strength of your ironclad will, you are able to resist reading a message that comes in, if you see or hear or feel a message notification, your brain has still been interrupted by that alert. Even a millisecond attention hijack like this will make you less focused, less able to resist other temptations, and more irritable.)

Step 4: Hide the bowl of candy. If you were trying to eat less candy, would you carry a bowl of it around with you? Would you put it on your nightstand and reach into it first thing in the morning? And then carry it with you to the bathroom? And then set it next to you while you try to eat a healthy breakfast? And then put it on your dashboard? I didn’t think so. So keep that smartphone tucked away until you actually need it. (Maybe make sure your water bottle isn’t leaking before you keep it stashed in your bag, though.) Think of it as a tool, like a hammer, that you don’t need to pull out until one of your strategically designated times. Make adjustments: Dig up your old-fashioned alarm clock, update your car’s navigation system, and put that digital camera back in your bag for the times when getting a call or text will tempt you if you are using a camera.

Step 5: Notice what happens. Notice the difficult bits with curiosity (and maybe humor). How do you feel as you detox from constant checking? How are people reacting now that you don’t respond to everything instantly? Notice also the moments of ease and focus. Your tension levels will likely drop, and you’ll probably be less stressed. How does this feel in your body? Really see the people around you, now that you are looking up from your phone. Smile.

Want support? Well join us, then!

In my Brave Over Perfect coaching group, we are doing a spring stress detox together. Our next live call is Wednesday, May 9 (you can listen to the recording anytime). Throughout the month, I’ll be teaching research-based techniques for dialing back the stress of our modern lives.

Join now for instant access to the Spring Stress Detox study guide and three live coaching calls. All three calls plus tons of resources are just $20. Learn more or enroll now.

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The Happiness Advantage


This post is taken from “The Raising Happiness Homestudy,” an online course I created as a companion to my book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. I’m sharing one “class” from this online course per week here, on my blog. Enjoy!

Note: Because the course was designed to focus on one theme per month (and one instructional video per week) I label the videos as such, e.g., this video is Theme One, Week One.

“The mere search for higher happiness, not merely its actual attainment, is a prize beyond all human wealth or honor or physical pleasure.”

—Cicero

This video begins Theme One: “How and why to put your own happiness first.

Here is what I want you to get out of the video: We need to prioritize happiness in our lives, and our children’s lives, over all other things.

Please understand that I’m not meaning to say that we need to prioritize pleasure, or gratification, or that we need to prioritize happiness over basic needs like food and shelter (the absence of which makes happiness much more difficult). Rather, we need to prioritize positive emotions and resilience. This class will help you build the skills you need to foster both positive emotions (like compassion) and resiliency in your family.

In this video, I talk about how Aristotle viewed happiness as the “chief” or “highest” good. I like the way that Darrin McMahon explains this in his dense but interesting book Happiness: A History:

What, then, is the highest good of the craft of life, the good for which all others are simply means, the end that is complete in and of itself? In Aristotle’s view, this final end is happiness…It is our natural telos—the end we ought to reach if we live well—and our highest attainment to be won by cultivating the faculty that sets us apart from all other creatures and acting accordingly…Happiness, Aristotle concludes, is an “activity of the soul expressing virtue.”

Join the Discussion
Reflect on how you are spending your time. What “roads to happiness” are you already on? What beliefs, activities, and habits do you have that routinely bring greater happiness and meaning into your life? Don’t forget to consider activities that deepen your connection to others, including your children. The goal here is to reflect on what you are already doing well.

 

audio_icon-100x100

If you would like to download the audio version of this video to listen to in your car or on the go, click the link below.
DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO VERSION HERE.

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Let's Create a New Ideal Worker Archetype, Please.

Have You Hit a Productivity Wall?

This post is from a series about the ideal worker archetype in my online course, Science of Finding Flow. Read the rest here.

I don’t know anyone who has worked for a traditional business who hasn’t run up against our cultural notion of what journalist Brigid Schulte calls “the ideal worker” — the perfect employee who, without the distractions of children or family or, well, life, can work as many hours as the employer needs.

Ideal workers don’t have hobbies — or even interests — that interfere with work, and they have someone else (usually a wife) to stay home with sick children, schedule carpools, and find decent child care. Babies aren’t their responsibility, so parental leave when an infant is born isn’t an issue; someone else will do that. The ideal worker can jump on a plane and leave town anytime for business because someone else is doing the school pickups, making dinner, and putting the children to bed. They call meetings at 7:50 in the morning, making sure anyone with kids feels stressed and deficient when they don’t want to get their kids to school an hour early.

1452183103319c583christian.ramirez@redjacketwest
In terms of the sheer number of hours on the job, most working parents can’t compete with these ideal workers. Still, it’s easy for us Americans to aspire to the archetype. But our fixation on the ideal worker can lead us to hone only one strength: the ability to work long hours.

Unfortunately, honing that one strength won’t get us very far. Why? The ideal worker is not necessarily ideal. Reams of research suggest that people who work long hours, to the detriment of their personal lives, are not more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours so they can have families and develop interests outside of work. Shulte reports:

The United States works among the longest hours of any advanced economy, but it is not the most productive per hour. That efficiency goes to countries like Norway. Economists like Stanford’s John Pencavel have found a “productivity cliff.” Productivity drops steeply after a 50-hour work week, and drops off a cliff after 55 hours. Exhausted employees are not only unproductive, but they are also more prone to costly “errors, accidents, and sickness.” “Is it possible,” Pencavel wrote, “that employers were unaware that hours could be reduced without loss of output?”

So why do we continue to believe that the longer and harder we work, the better we’ll be?

The ideal worker archetype was born more than 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the factory system in the late 18th century marked the first time that a clock was used to synchronize labor. Once hours worked could be quantified financially, people developed a new perception of time, one that saw the amount of time on the job as equivalent to a worker’s productivity.

...people who work long hours are not more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours. Click To Tweet

Do you think that “Time is Money?” Are you suuuuuure? In our next installment of “The Science of Finding Flow,” we’ll learn why this notion no longer holds true.


This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing one “lesson” from this online class per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

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What is “Flow,” Anyway?

“We change our lives for the better when we use tactics that flow with our brain and physiology, not against them.”

 

I have great news: You, too, have a sweet spot! In our next installment, you can find out how to grow it!


This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing one “lesson” from this online class per week here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!

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How to be Imperfect

Last autumn, horrific wildfires raged near our home. People we knew were losing their houses left and right. In the midst of disaster, I had to leave town for work.

To make myself feel better, I typed up three single-spaced pages of detailed instructions for what my family should do in case of fire or earthquake. Which I then laminated. And posted in each of my kids’ bedrooms.

I then made my family practice an emergency evacuation. Tanner, age 15, volunteered to take care of the family heirlooms. I drilled him, dead serious: “Which are the high-priority photo albums?” Molly, 14, was drawing on her ankle with a ballpoint pen. “Molly! Pay attention! When you get Buster into the car, what else do you need to make sure you have with you?”

My husband rolled his eyes.

Until recently, I’d thought that I’d more or less conquered perfectionism. Perfectionism, I’d become fond of saying, is a particular form of unhappiness. I’d thank GOD I wasn’t a perfectionist anymore.

Hah.

While it is true that I am no longer as afraid of making mistakes or disappointing others as I was in my youth, I have obviously not yet rid myself of perfectionism. I’ve just turned it outward, to the world, and especially to others. How am I trying to solve this problem of mine? Read on.

Inner turbulence, outer control

The more turbulent I am inside, the more I try to control what’s happening outside. Some people look away when chaos reigns; I dig in. I boss people around. I am aggressive about what I think is right.

Feeling like I am right, like I know what to do, delivers a hit of certainty in a world of unending and catastrophic natural disasters, in a country where mass shootings are commonplace and our hot-headed president brags about his ability to start a nuclear war.

But every time I try to control anything other than my own thoughts—the weather, my husband, my children—I’m sending a message to the world and the people around me that they are not good enough. This absolutely is perfectionism, and indeed, it is a particular form of unhappiness—one that spreads like wildfire.

This control freakish-ness indicates that I have problem with what researchers call “other-oriented perfectionism.”

I’m not alone. A new study published in Psychological Bulletin demonstrates that perfectionism is increasing over time: Today’s youth are more demanding of others, and they are more demanding of themselves. They also feel like other people (e.g., parents like me) are more demanding of them.

Like its close cousins “self-oriented perfectionism” and “socially prescribed perfectionism,” other-oriented perfectionism leads to nothing good. Although we often think that perfectionism is a cause of success—“I’m a bit of a perfectionist” is a socially acceptable humble-brag—research clearly demonstrates that perfectionism is often debilitating. A well-studied phenomenon, perfectionism is clearly associated with serious depression, chronic anxiety, and myriad health problems.

And “other-oriented perfectionism” comes with additional drawbacks: In intimate relationships, it is linked with “greater conflict and lower sexual satisfaction.” When I get bossy and controlling, the people around me feel defensive, or they feel wrong, or they feel a lack of control—nothing anyone ever wants to feel.

Being controlling is like a sugar rush: It might bring me a quick hit of tense certainty, but never lasting peace. This is because all control is false. Temporary at best. Life is inherently uncertain. We might hate that, but it’s true. We can be sure of only one thing: We will die. And we are usually not even in control of that.

How to surrender

Given this, why do I so consistently and diligently resist uncertainty by trying to get the world to do things my way? And what can I do instead of retreating back into perfectionism?

The opposite of perfectionism is acceptance. Not resignation, but surrender…to whatever is happening in the present moment. I know, I know: That sounds terrible to my fellow control freaks. Bear with me.

You may have heard the truism that what we resist, persists. This teaches us that we often prolong pain and difficulty through resistance. Perfectionism is a form of resistance to whatever is actually happening in the present moment. At its foundation, it is a rejection of the current reality.

Research by Kristin Neff and others shows that resistance increases our suffering, while acceptance—particularly self-acceptance—is one of the lesser-known secrets to happiness.

But this idea that we do better when we don’t resist difficulty is very counterintuitive. How do we even begin to stop resisting what hurts or what scares us?

Behavioral science and great wisdom traditions both point us towards acceptance. It is strangely effective to simply accept that which we cannot control, especially if we are in a difficult or painful situation. To do this, we accept the situation, and also our emotions about the situation.

Instead of laminating instructions for exactly what to do during a disaster (because, you know, when the house is on fire that’s just what everyone needs), I could have let myself accept reality: We could, at some point, lose our home in a fire. And then I could just let myself feel the fear and anxiety I was actually already feeling.

This approach requires trust. Trust that if I’m still here, still breathing, everything is okay. Trust that even if I don’t give specific instructions, if I back off from trying to control everyone and everything, life will continue to unfold just as it’s meant to. Trust that even if it all goes to hell, even if other people make mistakes or do things differently than I would do them, that I can deal with the outcome, no matter what it is. Trust that I can handle all the difficult emotions that come up in response to what does or does not happen. Trust that I can handle loss and grief should it come.

“You know what to do now, in a fire or an earthquake?” I asked the kids a few weeks later.

“Pretty much,” Molly answered, looking up.

“What?” I asked.

“Depends what we’re dealing with. I’m in charge of Buster. I’ll get him to the meeting place.”

This is a good-enough plan…even though it does not account for some critical details.

Weirdly, this trust and acceptance thing works. When we suppress or deny our emotions (or distract ourselves from them by writing and laminating instruction manuals), they don’t actually go away. In fact, they tend to generate an even bigger physiological response, which makes us more, not less, anxious. But when we let ourselves feel what we feel, we can process what is happening for us. We don’t feel fewer challenging emotions, but we do feel them for less time.

For example, we might have a particularly difficult relationship with a neighbor or in-law. We can accept this as our reality, and also that we feel frustrated and saddened by the situation. This doesn’t mean that the situation will never get better; acceptance is not the same as resignation. We can work to make the relationship less difficult (or to be reasonably prepared in the event of a disaster), while at the same time accepting the reality that the relationship is very difficult. Maybe it will get better—and maybe it won’t.

Accepting the reality of a difficult or scary situation and our limited control allows us to soften. And this softening opens the door to our own compassion and wisdom.

And in this crazy and uncertain life, we human beings need those things.

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Misery Loves Expectations

Irritated with your husband (or your wife)?

You probably expect too much.

I find it ironic that the month after Valentine’s Day tends to be the busiest time of the year for divorce lawyers (or so they say). Seems that many people are not feeling as much love and romance as Hallmark would hope.

I have a theory about this.

If I asked my grandmother if her late husband was her best friend, her provider, her lover, and her partner in parenting and life—her go-to guy for emotional fulfillment, practical help, AND the center of her social universe—she would have laughed uproariously.

She did love her hubby until the day he died and she missed him so much she wept when she would talk about him more than 30 years after his death. But my Opa wasn’t her best friend (her girlfriend Beulah was). She didn’t rely on him for help raising the kids or with the housework (times have changed!), nor did she expect him to understand her feelings. She relied on herself for happiness and fulfillment—and truthfully, she didn’t have high expectations there, either.

But she’d tell you she had a wonderful marriage. When I asked her if she had had a happy life (she lived to be 104 years old), she giggled at the absurdity of the question. Clearly she did.

And yet, like most of my peers, I would not sign up for her life—or, in particular, her marriage. Today, we expect our spouses to be our partners in just about every realm. We expect them to be our co-parents, our household running mates, and to help provide for our family financially. We’d think there was something wrong if they didn’t consider us their soul mate, their go-to buddy, and their lover.

Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel. Click To Tweet

Like individuals, couples are increasingly isolated from the outside sources of support that previous generations had, and so our partners have become our primary sources of emotional (and for some, spiritual) fulfillment. When we aren’t happy, it is easy—and quite common—for our generation to blame our spouse for it.

There is an expectations paradox here: The demands put on our relationships have become so great—and our expectations of them have gotten so high—that we are more likely to be disappointed when we don’t get what we want from our partners than we are to feel grateful when we do.

My grandmother expected very little from her husband—I imagine only that he provide her with financial stability, and that he be faithful to her. My grandfather delivered on these things, and as an added bonus, shared with her a love of dancing, a social life full of mutual friends and dinner parties, and a muted joy in raising children and grandchildren.

My grandmother was content not so much because of what she had in her husband, but because of what she lacked in her expectations. This is both ironic and instructive for our generation.

Consider the study where Duke professor Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, had research subjects try two different types of beer. One was Budweiser; the other was Budweiser with balsamic vinegar added to it.

The majority of subjects vastly preferred the Bud and vinegar concoction—when they weren’t told what it was. When they were informed before they tasted it, they hated it.

Ariely’s conclusion is that when people believe that something might be distasteful, they’ll experience it negatively, even if they would have liked it otherwise. The reverse is also true.

In other words: Our expectations hugely influence our perceptions, and therefore our decisions, our experiences, our judgments, and ultimately, how we feel.

But the idea that we should just lower our expectations of our spouses and call it a day is inherently unfulfilling. Seriously: Is the answer really to just lower the bar?

I can’t think of anyone for whom this would work. We can’t just drop our beliefs–especially our long-held romantic notions about who are partners should be to us–without replacing them with new beliefs and values that feel as true or truer to us.

So what do we do? How much can we really expect of our spouses and still be happy?  If expectations create relationship-killers, like nagging, contempt, and criticism, how can we respond constructively when our expectations aren’t met?

I’ve spent years combing the research for answers to these questions. I’ll be sharing what I’ve learned in my next live call on Friday, March 16. We’ll be digging deeper into the misery of high expectations, and more specifically what to do when our partners don’t measure up.

Join now and you can listen in to our March 2nd recording and get instant access to all of my Love & Marriage online resources. For a limited time, you can join us  for 50% off — only $10! Use the code BLOG10Learn more or enroll now.

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