I’ve been forced of late to ponder a very interesting concept through my work: the notion of “settling” in one’s life: for things, circumstances, and relationships which a) are not what we had aspired towards and hoped for and b) are dragging us down on several levels: emotional, physical, and sometimes even spiritual.
This is such a popular topic clients bring up in therapy, that I thought it might be a good idea to write some of my thoughts about it for you, dear readers, so that you can examine how it applies to you and the life you are living today. My hope is that these musings will stir things up for you a bit emotionally as well as cognitively- enough so that you may even perhaps come to some life-changing “ahas” which you will then act upon in order to improve your life dramatically.
The Holiday Awakening
I’ll start with a common example I hear about from my lovely clients which often ‘wakes them up’ to the whole concept of “settling” in their lives and often opens up a door to grow beyond their self-imposed limitations. Here is a made-up amalgamation of several of such stories I’ve heard to give you a flavor of how this particular phenomenon gets played out:
I’ve been seeing Mary about twice a month for the past two years to help her alleviate her depressive symptoms. I’ve taught her the core of cognitive behavioral tools to use when she finds herself in a low mood and she uses them with a high degree of success. She’s also been able to lower her dose of her antidepressant medication, which has delighted her. For the most part, she has made huge improvements: she was able to go back to work part-time as a nurse due to feeling like she’s out of the throes of depression, her relationship with her children has improved, and she has become a role model of ‘self-care’ to her friends- she now exercises regularly and treats herself to massage every two weeks, as well as counseling.
She starts to feel so much better that she and her closest girlfriend decide to treat themselves to a one-week holiday in Hawaii at a lovely all-inclusive resort. Off they go on their trip and end up having a wonderful time. Mary comes in to see me a few days after she arrives back from Hawaii and shares this story with me:
Esther, I’m worried that I might be depressed again and it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, look at me- I just spent a whole week lying in the sun drinking fruity cocktails with my best girlfriend and didn’t have a care in the world. I should be thankful I had such a great time and be focusing on the positives…what’s wrong with me?
Now if any of you have been a client of mine, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of “shoulding” on ourselves and definitely discourage the use of the word “should” when talking about ourselves or anyone else. I enquired further into her experiences on the trip by asking her what was different about her life when she was living it up on vacation versus living her life here at home. That’s when she got red in the face and looked down into her lap. I found this curious and asked her what she was thinking about to which she replied:
I feel really guilty about what I’m about to tell you but I’m going to share it anyway because I know you won’t judge me…
My girlfriend and I are both married as you know, but were obviously without our husbands on vacation. I never in my wildest dreams, being in my forties, the mother of two, and having been married for over twenty years, would imagine that another man would find me attractive or interesting to talk to.
Here’s the deal- we met some really nice single men our age at the resort and hung out with them. No funny stuff happened- we just sat and talked around the pool sometimes and played ping pong together to make up two teams. These guys were best friends like us who had a similar idea- to have a fun vacation together in a beautiful sunny place for a week. I could tell that one of them-John-was definitely attracted to me but I was honest and told him I was married and he was a gentleman and totally respected that.
Even though nothing romantic or sexual happened, I still feel guilty that I enjoyed the attention he gave me so much. (Tears start flowing down her face…) I guess what’s making me feel so low now that I’m back is seeing how my husband treats me in comparison to a complete stranger I met in Hawaii.
Esther, you know I love my husband and would never want to hurt him, but I’m realizing that he’s not the partner I had hoped for and wanted…(This leads to a discussion about what her hopes and dreams were for marriage when she was in her twenties and she eventually gets to the part where she met her husband and married him). She says now:
Now, twenty-one years later, I realize I settled when I married the man I did. When I look back now, I see that he wasn’t a good choice for me. We have very few things in common, our personalities clash constantly, and over the years, we have grown further and further apart. Now it feels like we’re roommates and co-parents.
I gently ask her: Looking back on the whole thing now with non-judgmental curiosity and self-love, why do you think you decided to marry him?
That’s easy- because he pursued me and wanted me. I didn’t have the greatest self-esteem in the world, and I guess I thought I was just lucky to land a husband. Now that we’re talking about it, I realize that I never asked myself back then if I wanted to marry him- if he was a good fit for me- I just went along with it because he thought it was a good idea and everyone around me expected me to get married and have a family and I was the right age to do that.
I then asked her what was awakened within her when she met John in Hawaii and had a different experience with a man than she has with her husband. She thought about it for a while and then said,
John treated me like his equal. He asked me lots of things about me- what my interests and passions were. My husband usually just talks about himself and doesn’t take an interest in my life and what brings me joy. Also, he seemed impressed that I had a career as a nurse and took great interest in my work. My husband resented me going back to school to become an RN and has complained about me working outside the home ever since I started. He sees it as a problem- like I’m ripping off the family by spending time working. He’s even said he’d rather I stay home with the kids and clean and prepare meals like his mother did.
I was very touched by Mary’s story which revealed that she had settled in her marriage. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate to her and her growing self-awareness! I think that’s because so many of us settle in many areas of our lives; often unconsciously. It becomes like a bad habit, that unless we increase awareness of it and learn tools to challenge it and do things differently, ends up getting us into some really miserable situations.
I adore Marianne Williamson and have been so affected by her writing and lectures over the years. One thing she says repeatedly is: “We think we ask God/The Universe for too much, but actually, the opposite is true- we don’t ask for enough”. I couldn’t agree more; especially when it comes to women and our expectations in life.
In that vein, I’d like to end by giving you a journaling exercise on how to stop settling and increase your standards and expectations in life.
Esther’s Top Five Journaling Exercises for Not Settling and Going for What You Deserve In Life
Journaling exercise #1: Write a journal entry all about your ‘settling’ habits- include all the examples in your life you can think of when you settled for something or someone instead of going what you really wanted.
Journaling exercise #2: Write a separate journal entry answering the following question in reference to every example you came up with in the previous journal entry:
What was this decision based on? What made sense about it at the time? Looking back now, would I make the same decision? Why not?
Journaling exercise #3: Write a list of things you really want in your life today and how they would make your life richer.
Journaling exercise #4: Answer this question:
If I really believed that I deserved to go for what I really want in life, how would that influence my decision-making when it comes to choices I make in the following areas: relationships, career options, recreation, and self-care?
Journaling exercise #5: Write out a detailed plan of small steps you can make towards going for what you really want and deserve in all the areas outlined in the previous exercise.