Wrapping paper litters the carpet, little explosions of color and desire. The fire once raging has now mellowed sending the occasional spark past the screen onto the hardwood floor, a threat so minor we pay it little mind. The children have squirreled themselves into corners to assess their bounty. Most are happy, content even, and yet there is always one who is disappointed, the outcome never truly meeting the anticipation. Christmas morning proves once again to be an intimate study of human nature.
When I was a child, I was, more often than not, the dissatisfied one. The gifts I received, and there were many as my mother’s language of love is gifts, never quite met my need and certainly never met my expectation. The result? Disappointment for me, dismay for my mother.
That pattern of behavior, those roots of dissatisfaction, have been one of the hallmarks of my life. Self-help gurus, and many therapists, will argue that contentment is found in being satisfied with what you have and for years, I believed that. I thought there was something wrong with me. Why wasn’t “It” good enough? Why couldn’t I be satisfied with what I had? Perhaps William Shakespeare was right, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.”
But lately, I have come to understand that unmet expectation is not an evil to root out, but a powerful source of inspiration and motivation. The desire to chase expectation (also known as ambition) is what led me to do well in high school, attend an ivy league college, get an MBA, work my way into a vice presidency, start my own marketing consulting practice, become a social entrepreneur, and then to finally go back to school to get an MFA and launch what could be called my third career as a writer and independent journalist.
In all of that journey, dissatisfaction with “what is” has been the motivator to work towards what could be. This has worked well in my professional life. However, for far too long, I didn’t understand the need to approach my personal life differently. The dissatisfaction that motivated me in my career, invariably bubbled over into my relationships. Let’s be frank, sometimes it is hard to love someone who is motivated by “not good enough” particularly if the message is that you are not good enough.
It’s taken years (thank god I have a patient husband), but finally I’ve learned the challenge is to create healthy boundaries between my personal and professional lives.
As a child, I didn’t understand it was not my mother’s job to fill my need, it was mine. If I didn’t get the thing I wanted for Christmas, I had two choices: change what I wanted or work to get it. As an adult, the same rules apply. If I find myself dissatisfied, I know I can decide that what I have is enough or I can work to meet my expectations. “Enough” is not something I apply to my career because, by definition, “enough” is limiting. I will always want more: more learning, more experiences, more success.
But in my personal life, I have learned to “lower” my expectations and the result is a bounty of love and friendship. As an example, I recently celebrated a milestone birthday. I came to it with no concept of what I wanted and found myself awed by the many acts of loving generosity. One group of friends decorated my home with flowers, banners, and gifts. Other friends surprised me with a “girls trip”. My husband and I celebrated with a night at a local resort and my children gave me gifts of their time (something only the mother of a teenagers can truly appreciate).
My hope for you this new year is to find that balance between the place of expectation and that place of enough. May your career (and the attendant financial reward) never be “enough” and may your relationships always be more than. Because in love, the gurus where right, sometimes freeing yourself from expectation delivers the best gift of all, contentment.
Do you struggle with balancing the desire for more with the bounty of enough? How do you separate out professional ambition with personal satisfaction? Share the wealth of your experience.
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