How to Get Off Your Own Back

Your vision of how your life should look might be blocking your view.

Red and Brown Leaves (1925) by Georgia O’Keeffe

We all have fantasies of what our lives are supposed to look like. Sometimes we carry these perfect visions around for so long that they harden into a belief system that forms like a cage around us, blocking out the flawed beauty of what’s actually here. As each new challenge or experience fails to match the shiny pictures in our heads, we blame ourselves and tell repeating stories about how our deep-seated flaws have once again caused us to fall short of securing the lives we imagined we’d have, the deeply rewarding careers we pictured, the richly satisfying friendships and love relationships we envisioned, the financial security we craved. And that’s not to mention the gratifying leisure activities we were supposed to enjoy, the cool shoes we should be wearing, and the confident, serene state of mind we should’ve achieved by now. When you really dig into your dusty treasure chest of fantasies about who you’re supposed to be, the details can be unsettling.

If you sift through your dreams for long enough, you might discover that what you expect yourself to accomplish and become and have and hold and own completely isn’t just unrealistic, it’s downright impossible. I’m not talking about expecting perfection, even, so much as imagining a life that doesn’t exist in reality, that bends the laws of time and space, that doesn’t include traffic and sickness and indifferent strangers and humidity and empty bank accounts and setbacks, not to mention friends and family and partners who are grappling with the same towering pile of hassles that you are.

What’s strange is how often merely observing reality can feed your magical thinking. Personally, I’ll start by making a rational observation like “X doesn’t have any bandwidth right now,” or “Y only wants to talk about her kids,” or “These couples have extremely gendered interactions – women gather on one side of the room and men on the other.” Even though I’m just collecting information that’s mostly accurate, I’ll sometimes move into a fantasy state from there: “I want friends who have tons of bandwidth, who aren’t constantly preoccupied, who make time for me, and who throw big parties where men and women all interact freely with each other!”

I don’t move toward reality, in other words. I go from wanting to have lunch with a busy friend to wanting to throw a dance party for the finest human beings on the face of the earth. I take one day of writer’s block and translate it into I NEED A YEAR OFF TO CLEAR MY MIND. I sweep the floor and suddenly it’s crucial that I clean the entire house, quickly, all the while listing the other things I should be doing instead.

Even when I’m having a good day, a small detail can threaten to mess up everything: I’m going out to lunch but I suddenly decide, on the way out the door, that I look frumpy and idiotic. I spend the morning gardening but this pine tree has some kind of scary infestation on its branches and only a bad gardener would allow this to happen! I have a nice dinner with my family but then one of my kids seems unhappy and it makes me feel anxious about how she’s doing at her new school. Normally I can talk myself down and put things in perspective. But if I’m under extra stress, everything I see gets pushed through the lens of my enormous, fantastical expectations of myself until each flaw becomes devastating proof of my failure as a human being.

And when the disappointment and self-blame are at their peak, what takes over? New fantastical visions of how things should be. I should throw out all frumpy clothes. I should have an encyclopedic knowledge of garden pests. I should be a better mother. I need friends who love to talk and hang out all the time (even though I don’t actually have time to hang out, either). I need to work out. I need more sleep. I need someone to run my life for me.

A rich imagination is a double-edged sword. But it makes sense that stress causes magical thinking. Most people who struggle to welcome reality — who retreat into their imaginations or engulf themselves in distractions that are aimed at transforming the world into a more magical place — didn’t grow up in environments where they could get what they needed by simply asking for it. When things go wrong, we rarely even consider working with what we have, nudging reality into a slightly better shape and enjoying that process. When things get tough, we despair over what we don’t have and we blame ourselves for it. We say things like “Why does this always happen to me?” and then we do the same things we’ve always done, that led to bad results. We’re ruled by our visions of how things should be. In other words, we keep ourselves safe from the disappointments of reality by living inside our heads.

Obviously, this way of life leads to a lot of neuroticism and stubbornly struggling to control or change the people around you. You’re afraid of the vulnerability of asking for small favors directly. You flee at the first whiff of rejection. And you take every disappointment personally. Misfortune and loneliness are are always highly personal. Every obstacle or challenge is encoded with signs that you messed something up along the way.

The compulsion to control reality and force it to match the fantasy inside your mind might’ve been adaptive when you were young and had no control and limited options. But as an adult, the cage of fantasy slowly becomes a form of self-punishment. When you fail to succeed in the exact way you imagined, it leads to disappointment and shame. Even when you accomplish your dreams, there’s always something slightly off. You can’t welcome each day for what it is, and embrace people for who they are. You’re always trying to fix or change or improve what you have.

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The cure for this mess is simple. You welcome reality exactly as it is. You resolve to enjoy where you are and work with whatever you have. You don’t immediately start rearranging and fixing the outside world inside your mind, subconsciously viewing these fixes as some form of salvation from your guilt and shame over your inadequate life. You observe without mapping out a plan of attack. You watch and wait and accept all of it — the strange ways that people shut each other out or stay out of reach, and the ways you avoid your own most pressing and important emotional challenges in favor of telling old stories. You notice how stubbornly you refuse to change, and you reflect on what those refusals bring you. Sometimes fixating on what’s wrong with your life is just another way to feel sadness, a way to reckon with the rejections of the past, a way to solve arbitrary puzzles that are big enough to block out your grief, a way to engage with a world that frustrates you.

Welcoming reality means accepting that you can make dramatic changes in one area but still regress in other ways. You won’t become someone who can be present all the time. You won’t bend the laws of time and space until you’re perfect. You won’t mold the universe to suit your desires. This world was built to terrify and offend and disappoint and delight you. We are here to tolerate each other and to marvel at how bad we are at meeting each other’s needs until suddenly, we’re bringing each other gifts that we didn’t expect. We’re here to let ourselves off the hook, today and tomorrow, while also doing our best. We’re here to endure horrors and also to appreciate the simple pleasures of the day.

It takes a lot of work to pry your fantasies out of every picture of what your life should look like and who you should be and how the world should be. Often, that work boils down to noticing the ways you metabolize stress or frustration, telling yourself this should feel differently or I shouldn’t be doing this right now, I’m too busy for this. So many of us speed through life in an effort to fix everything, to render every corner of our lives shiny and acceptable, to turn ourselves into the people we’re supposed to be. But everything can’t be fixed. And as long as you’re in a fast-motion battle with imaginary foes, you won’t just fail, you’ll miss the small, imperfect glimpses of divinity that are lurking inside this mundane moment.

Stop hurrying and biting off more than you can chew in an effort to transform your life into something better. Accomplish one small task today with loving focus and attention, and declare your day a success if you manage to finish it. Treat the noise in your head as incidental, like arbitrary dialogue from extras in the background of the scene. Observe the storms of your emotions like you’re watching a series of red and yellow and green blobs moving across the weather radar app on your phone – inevitable, unending, less meaningful than they seem. Notice the sounds and struggles of the people around you with compassion and affection without trying to stop or fix or explain anything. All of the elements of your day – frustrating and sad and sweet and exciting and tragic – fit into an exquisite picture that’s inherently conflicted. You can’t have only the good things. There is no smooth path ahead. Be where you are.


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