Why do I feel like a total failure?
When you're feeling really stuck, when you're convinced your life has gone completely and irretrievably off the rails... can lowering your expectations of life help?
Or will that just make you feel more depressed?
First off, what is this "happiness" you speak of?
There’s one theory that happiness, or fulfilment, is basically how much your ideal life matches up to your actual life.
A lot of self-help, life-hack, get-your-shit-together-already-Brenda content out there focuses on how to push up the quality of your Actual Life, so it’s closer to your Ideal Life.
And sometimes that's useful.
But remember the Stoics, those paragons of cheerful despair who helped us survive New Year’s?
The Stoics went the other way. Rather than just try to push up the quality of your Actual Life, Stoic philosophy is basically about pushing down your expectations of life, as another way of lining up the Ideal and the Actual.
The Stoics chose to look at life in a pretty bleak way. They were all about expecting suffering and frustration. Not a very sexy prospect, but really it was just a way of expectation management-ing the whole life ordeal.
It may not be as inspiring as other self-help stuff, but there’s something about this expectation management approach that really speaks to me. Maybe it's that, as a sensitive cat I spend a lot of time thinking my Actual Life is a flaming tyre fire of unmet expectations.
Expecting things to suck can be useful
There’s a famous quote from the king of the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius, that I’ll paraphrase for clarity here.
Today I expect to meet people who are assholes. They don’t mean to be such assholes, but they don’t know any better. But I do know better, so I won’t let them make me into an asshole too.
As I said, potentially useful if, say, you’re dealing with people being assholes at work, or on the motorway. If you expect that at some point today someone will cut you off in traffic, you’ll likely be more zen when it happens.
So all this Stoic stuff is about looking life square in the face and saying 'yeah Life, I want you to be different, but not only am I going to accept you how you are, I am going to one up you on that, I am going to *expect* all this annoying life bullshit to come my way.'
But sometimes even lowered expectations aren't low enough
But what about when the asshole you’re dealing with is in your brain? And its firm grip seems destined to destroy you? When that mean voice that whispers 'you're not good enough' has stopped whispering and started to shout?
If you're convinced your Actual Life is flatlining, then it doesn't matter how low your expectations are, you're going to feel like a failure.
A very particular kind of fear
So when you're having a really hard time, even the Stoics can feel perfunctory. For me anyway, what I’m dealing with at times like these is this deep, debilitating fear.
What am I afraid of exactly? It's almost always the same thing. Some version of 'you've made all the wrong decisions, and you've ruined your life.' The content of your fear may differ, but perhaps you know the kind of fear I'm talking about.
The kind of fear that means you can’t eat a full meal for days or weeks or months on end.
The kind of fear that has you waking up several times a night, every night, soaked in sweat.
The kind of fear that makes you dry retch in the street at a passing thought.
The kind of fear that feels like it is sucking the very life force out of you.
This my friends, is no run of the mill stuff.
When you find yourself in the middle of this kind of fear, the usual tips and tricks don’t work so well. They can’t quite match up with just how small your world can become in the face of such fear.
The Fear Finger Trap
Fear of this magnitude is like the world’s most complicated finger trap. Except instead of just getting your finger stuck in there you get your entire sense of self worth entangled.
And, just like a finger trap, the more you try to pull yourself out of there the more you’re convinced that you’re a pile of shit for getting stuck in the first place. Lovely.
If you’re reading this, you might already know this the hard way. And believe me, I’m not here to tell you how to suck eggs. But here’s the thing, I’ve known about the Fear Finger Trap for what feels like eons now and I still get stuck in it on the regular. So maybe there’s a more proactive way of approaching this particular feelings-dilemma?
How to expectation manage when you can't manage
Where I think the Stoic approach could do with a little rewrite is when you’re in full Fear Finger Trap mode. At times like this, even your expectation management needs its expectations managed.
So I give you, my Stoic Prayer for Doom Town.
(I say “my” Stoic prayer because, well, this is what *my* Doom Town looks like. Feel free to adapt for your own personal flavour of Doom Town)
I expect at times to feel completely disconnected from the world, and everything and everyone that I hold dear in it.
I expect to lose my charm and sass, and to feel like an impotent conversationalist.
I expect to feel utterly terrified of unexpected things, and random (often benign!) comments.
I expect to have a deep, guttural fear, that I am too much of a burden.
And I expect that I will often (maybe several times a day) lose sight of the fact that this must be temporary.
But I am committed to trying to remember that it always shifts. It always has. I will hold onto that lightness of when I feel it lift slightly. One day that light will be everything. One day.
And I expect this Stoic Prayer to only sometimes make me feel better. Such is the mystery of Doom Town.
Expectation is a power move
This (if you haven’t noticed) isn’t meant to be inspiring.
It’s simply about trying to stop struggling so much. It’s about looking the Fear Finger Trap square in the face and saying 'hey debilitating fear, not only do I accept you, but I *expect* you.'
It’s a Power Move basically.
Imagine you’re playing poker. Now imagine you’re playing poker in a film. Put some cool music in the background. Go on, do it. Make it all Oceans 11 like.
Now, you’re George Clooney, your fear is some bit part, no-one-remembers-their-name actor. This guy is the Fear Finger Trap incarnate. He puts down his bet, and you, all George-Clooney-spruiking-Nespresso like, raise it.
Fear Finger Trap: Accept it, baby. You're stuck with me.
George Clooney You: Accept you huh? Too easy. I’m going to EXPECT you.
That’s how you want to think of it in your head. The Fear Finger Trap thinks the only card you have left to play is the acceptance card. But oh no you didn’t, you just one-upped him with the expectation card. He doesn’t even know what hit him!
Making cheeky friends with reality
To come back to our handy graph lines - your Ideal Life and your Actual Life - this power move is really about moving that Ideal Life line way, way down. Just for the moment. For however long you need. You're not just expecting frustration and annoyance, you're expecting debilitating fear and life grief.
Moving the line down consciously, by expecting everything that’s happening, rather than just hating it when it does, is a way of accepting what's happening that is proactive.
And in this particular instance, when things are bad enough that the kind-of-depressing Stoic Prayer for Doomtown actually looks helpful? It’s not about finding happiness. It’s just about making a more manageable gap, between your Ideal Life and your Actual Life.
Think of it as a way of making cheeky friends with reality. Of holding your heart and telling yourself it’s okay to be scared, even before you are scared. It’s a way of being your own sassy best friend and telling the Fear Finger Trap to put it in its pipe and smoke it.
And this Stoic Prayer for Doom Town is yours, to rewrite and take from and use as you wish. Please do so responsibly (no world domination plans please, unless that’s what’s truly in your heart!)
Much love from one finger-trapped heart to another,