My good friend, S, called as she was sitting in traffic on her way to work. This wasn’t unusual. But what was different was how upset she was because she had a bad cold. That evening, she was supposed to go her most important client’s holiday party and the next morning she had to give a key sales presentation. She said that she was thinking of not going to the party but worried about what her client would think of her. Later that morning, she emailed that she’d decided to go – – she’d just push herself, right? At the end of the day, she texted that she felt horrible, her nose was a dripping mess, and there was no way she could make the party. That evening, she called, quite depressed. “Maybe it’s because I’m over 60 and can’t push the way I used to? I feel like a loser. It’s the holidays – too much to do and too many expectations. Now I know what you must feel when you don’t feel well and don’t show up for things.”
Yup, the holiday season ratchets up expectations. There are events to attend, food to cook, gifts to buy and the joy you’re expected to show. But do you find that when your expectations exceed reality, disappointment sets in? This is true for anyone who typically meets commitments.
But (there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?) if you’re living with chronically difficult health, we’re living in a constant state of setting expectation and experiencing disappointment. We don’t need holidays to remind us that we’re not reliable.
I thought of this when my client, T, described pushing herself to keep working rather than take the nap she desperately needed. She said, “It’s like I’m ‘flogging a dead horse‘ – – my mind wants one thing but my body needs another. When I finally realize I can’t go on, I think I’m lazy — like that horse. I’m wishing that if I just keep pushing it, that horse will get up and do the work the way it’s supposed to.” Tearfully she said that the worst part of this is realizing how the disappointment in herself makes her afraid to take on more work.
I asked T what she thought would help her change this behavior? “Acceptance,” she said. She’d attended a seminar on living with chronic pain where they spoke about the need for acceptance. She’d googled and found definitions which led her to think, “... if only I could accept the pain, I wouldn’t try to work beyond my limits. I’d be happier and healthier.”
Could be. But I worry that there’s a growing perception among those living with chronically difficult health (and those who don’t but give advice to those of us who do) that the key to our happiness is in accepting what we live with. And that this is relatively easy to attain. But I think that for most of us the notion of acceptance is vague and hard to pin down. It also sounds finite, like a destination where we’ll arrive and stay.
Another way to view this is through the lens of resilience. When we’re engaged in life we live with hope, set expectation, and tolerate disappointment. Hope leads us to set expectations, maybe a big one such as finishing a major work project or a small one such as going food shopping today. Disappointment happens when we don’t meet a commitment because of our unpredictable health. Hope feels good. Disappointment is painful and difficult to tolerate. We typically judge and think badly of ourselves for not meeting that commitment and that keeps us from bouncing back with resilience. It becomes a soupy mess that we just want to avoid.
When bad health gets in the way and you can’t make a commitment, you will be disappointed. That’s inevitable. But can you find that resilient place that you call hope? Can you remind yourself that tomorrow offers another opportunity to create and meet a new commitment?
Looking for more ideas on setting expectations and responding when you can’t meet them? “Make It Happen” in my Guidebook Series addresses this and more.