“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.” ~Thích Nhat Hạnh
My husband and I bought our first house two years ago. Expecting a child and excited to move on to the next stage in our lives, we listed all of the ways we would make the house perfect.
As first-time homeowners and parents, we assumed this list was manageable. Surely the house could be painted in a weekend! Of course we can get work done while the baby naps!
Indeed, it seemed manageable and, therefore, (to me) mandatory.
To kick off the home improvements, we tested a few new paint colors on the wall in the hallway, and they are still there today. For two years I looked at that paint and reminded myself of what I didn’t accomplish. What were once radiant, bold, and playful colors had become glaring, critical, and mocking.
It can be easy for our expectations to get the better of us. What may have begun as aspirations transform into laws that must be followed precisely. Who we are and how we live are suddenly not enough.
Our internal critic bombards us with well-rehearsed and compelling judgments and criticism. Expectations and judgments masquerade as the truth and influence our emotions and our actions. It can be difficult to detect when our expectations don’t really match reality.
Upon reflection today, it’s clear to me that we had no idea what we were in for when we made that list two years ago; yet, these expectations had become non-negotiable. Where was the room for living in these expectations?
Discrepancy between our expectations and reality can be uncomfortable. We may blame ourselves and tighten our grip on our expectations. We believe that it is only once they are met that we can let go and be happy.
It is also tempting to place blame on another person or our circumstances. Again, we believe that if only he/she/it/this would change, we could let go and be happy.
The trick in all of this is that there will always be new expectations to be met preventing us from letting go and truly embracing our lives.
While I struggled with this discrepancy between what should be and what really is, my daughter smiled at the paint on the wall. She doesn’t know what we were “supposed to” finish. She doesn’t know how a wall “should” be.
My moment of clarity came when she looked up at the wall and triumphantly stated, “Green! Red! Purple!”
I asked myself then how the same paint on the wall could hold such a different meaning to me. If the walls were painted, what would really be different? Not only that, but what did this unfinished wall make possible and what had I been missing all this time?
I realized then that the wall more accurately reflects the richness of my life than it does any shortcoming of mine. This wall reflects dancing in the living room and weekends at the park, not failure as a person. I was inspired then to frame the paint on the wall rather than wish it were gone.
It was both liberating and humbling to acknowledge that this isn’t about the paint on the wall at all. This is about me. It is not the paint that needs to be changed, but what I see when I look at it.
We can be easily persuaded by the false promises that control and perfection make. We can forget that perfection will never be achieved, and we mistakenly believe that this means we are not enough.
We might even believe that our self-talk, as negative as it may be, is reality. When thinking errors overshadow the good that is within our lives, it can seem that life must always be something else.
To find release from the emotional toll of the “shoulds” and “good enoughs,” we focus on what must be different: ourselves, a loved one, a stranger, circumstances, or that irksome wall.
Why is this so hard to change? Change often brings with it the fear of the unknown. Change is not certain.
However, when we can change this, not only do our expectations change, but so do our happiness, contentment, and gratitude for what is. We are more likely to fully see things as they are when we can detach ourselves from unyielding expectations.
We are free to live when we make room for life.
To begin to see your “wall” through different eyes:
1. Remind yourself that you are enough.
It isn’t even necessary to be good enough. You are simply enough.
We might need to remind ourselves of this often. After all, that inner critic has had a lifetime to develop.
2. Slow down and take notice of your self-talk.
What has your inner critic convinced you of? Explore this question with curiosity, not judgment or criticism.
When we can do this with non-judgmental curiosity, we are able to see with clarity and compassion. We can begin to identify those things we tell ourselves that just make us feel worse and don’t change anything anyway. We can reduce our suffering, even in a naturally painful situation.
3. Reevaluate your expectations.
Have you made room for life? Do you have new information now that you didn’t have before? Are these expectations compatible with your priorities?
When we can make our expectations more fluid, we have the freedom to live in the present moment, and enjoy it. We are free to decide what our life is about, and we are free to change our minds about this at any time.
4. Get at the underlying fear.
What are you really afraid of these “walls” revealing? Are these fears accurate?
Quite often, our fears take the form of “what if” and “what this says about me.” Even when there appears to be a kernel of truth behind the fear (after all, it was true that I hadn’t painted that wall), there is more to the story. The belief that we are unworthy, irresponsible, weak, unlovable imposters is simply a fear, not a fact.
5. Consider how this “wall” might be described in your biography.
What is the whole story? How boring would the biography be if it were just about a wall?
Perhaps we are focused on the small, inconsequential details of life. Perhaps we take our lives for granted. Intentionally taking a step back and really looking is how we get to appreciate the fullness of life.
Although taking these steps requires the conscious effort to make a change, the result is far more rewarding than a newly painted wall could ever be.
Photo by Graham