Discover more from My Sweet Dumb Brain
Why don't my expectations line up with my reality?
I needed to read this. Maybe you do, too.
I’ve always loved reading advice columns. I love the vulnerability of the advice-seeker, the confidence of the advice-giver, the connectedness that comes from reading someone else’s quandary and feeling seen.
As a kid, I’d devour Dear Abby after my parents were done with the day’s newspaper. I even tried penning my own very exclusive advice column. My mom wrote in asking how to get her children to clean up after themselves. I, the ever-wise columnist, advised her to give her children “more treats.” (It was my one and only column. Very exclusive, indeed!)
In my 20s, I gave several copies of Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of Cheryl Strayed’s impeccable Dear Sugar advice, to friends and family as gifts. I’ve long been a fan of Heather Havrilesky’s words of wisdom. I love reading thoughtful work advice, like that from Roxane Gay. And, like the 10-year-old version of me, I even dabbled with offering advice during the early days of My Sweet Dumb Brain.
For all my love of reading other people’s advice and quandaries, I don’t exactly love being the person in the advice-giving seat — at least not on paper. I suppose it’s partially because I know I don’t have all the answers. But also, because my advice is often full of caveats. I don’t mind giving advice in conversation to folks looking for guidance. But via a one-way letter? That feels different. I want to pause every so often and ask, “Does this resonate with you?”
That’s why today’s newsletter is a surprise.
As I sat down to begin working on it, I couldn’t concentrate. My toddler was in the midst of a late-afternoon meltdown, and my partner was trying his best to reason with her. This was the first time all weekend I’d had the opportunity to write — something I’d been looking forward to all day — and I couldn’t do it. Instead, I began thinking of how much this situation seems to punctuate a lot of my life these days: my best-laid plans often go astray.
Working from home, working as a freelancer, working with a toddler, working in an industry with lots of instability, I’ve learned how to be flexible — or, at least, I’m getting a lot better at embracing flexibility. Still, there are times when I get incredibly frustrated and discouraged by how hard it seems to achieve what I’ve set out to do. Why can’t I write the damn thing? Why can’t I stick to a set routine? Why didn’t I predict this client’s needs? Why do I end my days with more to-dos than I started with?
My frustrations all boil down to one big question: Why don’t my expectations line up with my reality?
Instead of sitting in front of my laptop, staring at a blank screen while my family worked out their feelings on the other side of the door, I challenged myself to write whatever came to mind. Before I knew it, I was writing an advice column. For myself. And for anyone else who feels frustrated with their own best-laid plans.
I hope it’s helpful.
There are periods in your life when it will be harder to get things done — or, at least, the things that you really want to accomplish. Things like writing a book, DIYing that house project, or even making regular plans with friends. You will have young children that demand attention, older parents that require care, or a big old challenging sandwiched combination of the two. Or perhaps you will be the one that needs a little extra energy and love. You might be sick or tired or simply worried about the state of the world.
These periods are difficult to define or even talk about. They’re just part of life. You’re not in the middle of a major crisis or loss, some kind of situation where others would offer you help and commiseration. But you’re not exactly thriving, either. You’re getting by, trying to keep things afloat. And because you’re in a period that’s just part of life, you’re trying to keep things afloat without complaining or asking others for help too much. Everyone else is managing their lives just fine, right? Surely you can do it, too.
But that’s where you’re wrong. Most people aren’t managing just fine. There are plenty of other people out there with their own list of struggles. They are feeling anxious about money. They’re worried about their health. They’re in a rut where it feels like they’re fighting with their spouse non-stop. They are lonely. They think about the future and, more often than not, feel dread. They have days that are extra challenging. They are grieving lost loved ones and lost dreams.
You wouldn’t know this from looking at social media or going to a mixer and talking to colleagues, but it’s true. Because so many of us live in a society that prizes individualism, we don’t ask for help. We don’t lean on our neighbors or friends. We don’t speak up when everything feels a little too hard.
And so, you struggle alone. You struggle alone and you shame yourself for struggling in the first place. You don’t talk to other people about the struggle, but you do look at other people from afar and compare your struggling self with their seemingly successful selves. You wonder why you can’t be like them.
The thing you don’t do is talk about the struggle, or ask those other people about the parts of their lives that are hard, too. If you did, I guarantee you’d feel a lot less alone. But you don’t, because it feels weird, off-putting, or like an admission of failure to talk about these things. To be fair, no one else is talking about it either.
I don’t know exactly who you’re comparing yourself to or what things you wish you had the capacity to do at this point in your life, but I do know how much this feeling sucks. How hard it is to be in a period that feels far off from where you want to be for no other reason than the fact that sometimes — oftentimes — life is hard.
You might wish you had more money so you could live in a better place. You might wish you had more time so you could start that newsletter you’ve always been dreaming about. You might wish you had more energy so you could begin lifting weights. You might wish you had more confidence to sign up for those dance classes you’ve always been interested in. You have a vision of the person you want to be, and you’re not there. Most days, getting there feels impossible.
For whatever reason — or, rather, for a lot of reasons that are systemically stacked up against us — things like money, time, energy, and confidence are often in short supply. It’s not your fault. Yes, there are steps you can take to earn more money, carve out more time, gain more energy, or become more confident, but it’s not going to happen overnight. And, let’s be honest: you may never reach the levels of those things that you’ve dreamed of. Even if you do, there will always be another level, just out of reach.
I’m not saying this to be discouraging nor to give you an excuse or permission not to try. I’m saying it so you can stop beating yourself up, on top of everything else. Life is hard. There are some periods that are harder than others. You may very well be in one of those periods right now, and I’m sorry. Things will get better — they always do. In the meantime, you can stop blaming yourself. You can accept this period for what it is. You can acknowledge that things are hard, and keep working towards something better.
You can do the brave thing and ask for a little help or have an open and honest conversation with someone about how things feel right now. You can congratulate yourself for the wins and good things in your life, however small they might seem. You can be kind.
Look for the joys. The reasons to be alive. Then document those joys to use as proof that this period of your life has its charms, too. And as the days — and the joys — begin to pile up, you might just discover that this version of you is even better than the one you were envisioning. After all, this version of you is real, and it is beautiful.
You could even write yourself a letter that you need to read. Trust me: It will make you feel better. I’ve tried it, and it works.