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When Life Doesn’t Look Like You Thought It Would

Originally posted in collaboration with Style Blueprint.

There is no user’s manual for life. No “Unmet Expectations 101” course to help us cope with dead ends and curveballs. And while that may not come as a surprise, it’s not always easy to accept. No matter what stage of life you find yourself in, you likely had expectations of what things would look like — from your home and family to your career path and finances. The truth is, things rarely turn out exactly as we imagined them. We’ve enlisted the help of the emotional wellness experts at Onsite to talk expectations, reality, and how to deal with disappointment.

“A lot of our internal angst and discomfort comes up when the natural flow of unpredictable life happens,” says Ryan Bloch-Snodgrass, a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor, and Onsite Clinical Supervisor. “I have found that if we can identify what we can control and find agency in those spaces — while also accepting that there are many unpredictable things in life — it will free us from the belief systems that disrupt us.”

Ryan also offers that it’s helpful to consider where your expectations are coming from, because the source can affect the depth of the impact. Are our expectations self-imposed, or do they come from our family, faith, work life, social media, or something else?

“Depending on the source, we can feel like we’re letting ourselves down — our community, family, friend group, society, etcetera,” says Ryan. “And depending on where that message is coming from and how much weight we give it, it can shape our view of ourselves, others, and the world. In turn, it can also impact how we experience our physical body. It can easily manifest in physical ailments.

So what can we do? Here are eight simple strategies to help see you through.

8 Expert Tips for Coping With Unmet Expectations

Make a list of things you can control.

Making a list of things you can control gives you a tangible blueprint to continue returning to. For example, a few things you can control are how you react in any given situation, how much time you spend with certain people, how much sleep you get, and how you spend your resources (like money, time, and attention). Be honest with yourself, take control where you can, and avoid focusing on factors that are outside of your control.

Reflect on the things that didn’t turn out as you expected.

A different version of your story doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad or a failure. In fact, sometimes it turns out even better than you could have imagined! Think of a vision or dream that turned out differently than you thought it would. What good did that unexpected outcome bring?

“I think we have the assumption that if the outcome of a situation doesn’t align with the vision we originally created, that it can’t also be good,” says Ryan. “Many times, when things have not gone how we thought they would, it’s actually led to something much better … We limit our joy when we don’t open ourselves up to the possibility of things turning out differently than we expected.”

With that in mind, take the time to make a list of positive things that resulted from an unexpected turn of events It’s a good reminder that a change of plans doesn’t always have to be negative.

Permit yourself to accept the new version of your story.

No one is suggesting that accepting a new narrative is easy, but giving yourself permission to accept it is an important first step. “Especially when something has not gone our way due to a loss or a transition, we can hold this idea that if the pain of that loss will just go away, we’ll be the person we would have been had that never happened. And that’s not true. We are a collective of our whole experience,” Ryan tells us.

“I hear that so much from my clients, especially during our Onsite Workshops. People will say things like, ‘My goal is to be the person that I would have been had everything gone the way it was supposed to.’ I love helping them see that’s not a realistic belief — and that it can be a good thing,” adds Ryan.

It’s not about forcing or faking a positive outlook. Once you accept things as they are, you can find gratitude for lessons learned and love for the person you’ve become. “We can learn to appreciate that we may not be the people we would have been had all of those situations not occurred, but we can be very proud of the people we are as a result,” says Ryan. “Next time you’re in the midst of a story unfolding, ask yourself, ‘What if it turns out better than I expect?’”

Start each morning by doing something for yourself.

Our relationships with loved ones are undoubtedly important — but so is the relationship we have with ourselves. Ironically, it’s the one we most often forget to nurture. “I once received advice from a therapist to make sure I started each morning with something for me,” says Ryan. “She suggested I describe a picture of everyone I think of and care for, and she helped me realize I wasn’t including myself in that picture. In order to add myself to the picture before I start a busy day, I start by doing at least one thing to nurture myself. As I consistently do this practice, I’ve learned a lot about what it means to take care of myself.”

Something as simple as meditating, reading, taking a bath, or going on a walk can allow us to reconnect with our own thoughts, feelings, desires, and needs. “This practice invites us into a relationship with ourselves, and we discover nurturing, supportive, and helpful practices for us in different seasons,” offers Ryan. “We have the opportunity, the more in tune we become, to identify what helps us cope and even how our values and desires change over time.”

Find ways to embrace optimism and strive for “better” while accepting and acknowledging reality.

“At Onsite, we often talk about the idea of being content while contending,” says Ryan. “It’s the idea that we can find peace and gratitude today without neglecting our desire for more. Happiness and contentment are very different. I think people seek happiness. And they totally bypass the importance of contentment. We undervalue the ability to just be okay.”

But don’t bypass your pain.

No one wants to suffer. But one of the key factors in cultivating joy and contentment is a willingness to experience your pain without giving yourself over to suffering. “Pain allows us to embrace happiness because it makes us look at our values,” says Ryan. “It brings immense mindfulness. When we’re in pain, we often tune into how we feel. And as a result, we attend to ourselves. We can’t know one opposite without the other. We can’t experience the full depth of happiness, joy, or contentment without understanding pain and loss. The difference between pain and suffering is the beliefs and messages we carry and associate with the pain.”

Ryan offers this example: If you were to lose your job, you might say, “Wow, that stinks. I’m really disappointed and need to find a new job.” Alternatively, in the same situation, you might say, “How could this happen? I will never find anything that makes me as happy as that job. There is something wrong with me; I’ll never be successful.”

“One of these frames of messaging will lead to prolonged suffering,” says Ryan. “We can check in with ourselves and the messages we carry around our pain. And often, when we acknowledge and name the pain and grief, feel it, and find we are still okay, we discover that it is temporary. To be content while contending is how we can avoid adding unnecessary suffering to the natural pain of life. We can name and accept that we’re in pain, care for ourselves, feel our feelings, and not make it worse by attaching to destructive narratives.”

Recite the Serenity Prayer.

Ryan suggests this quick, simple recitation as a reminder and a prompt to reset. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If that mantra doesn’t work for you, find other affirmations that bring you peace, and practice those daily.

Celebrate who you are today!

We’re ever-evolving works-in-progress, constantly learning and growing. Celebrate the current season of your life, with all its joys and victories, no matter how small. Even if this season of life isn’t your favorite so far, look at it as a transitional period, and try not to let the good parts pass you by unnoticed.