Expectations. They seem innocent enough, and yet the pressure is intense. And in the past week alone, three different incidents happened that made me realize how pervasive this problem is.
The first was a young woman I coach who is getting married next month. She was crying to me that there is something really wrong with her because while she is supposed to be so excited and happy, she is nervous and anxious.
The second was a freshman in college who worked so hard to get into one of the top schools in the country, only to now be considering taking a year of absence. After all, she is supposed to be having the time of her life and loving it. And instead she is overwhelmed with work and the transition of being away from home.
The third is a friend who is about to give birth. She feels like a terrible mom and is wracked with guilt. She is completely overwhelmed with the idea of having another newborn when her life is already crazy. And yet, she is supposed to be thrilled and feeling blessed…but she isn’t.
We are constantly bombarded with messages of what we are supposed to do, supposed to think, and supposed to feel. But our reality may differ. And not only is that OK, it is normal. It is to be expected. And yet it is not accepted.
Now when the supposed-to-feel feeling is negative, and we feel something positive, we are lauded. We are considered strong, courageous, and resilient. Go through a traumatic episode and instead of cowering from fear you can speak out, uplift and inspire others, then you are a hero. There are times that we are allowed to be sad, lonely, quiet and even depressed. If we lose our job, or our pet or a loved one…these feelings are to be expected. As long as they stay within the prescribed timeline. Once it is decided that the time to move on has come…then it is no longer ok to mope around.
The bigger problem comes is in when we are supposed to be having happy feelings, and we just aren’t feeling them. Not only do we then have to deal with our own negative feelings, but we have to deal with letting down the rest of the world that wants us feeling differently.
It happens all the time. And innocently, may I add. I know we don’t mean any harm. If anything, we are trying to be uplifting and positive. But the end result is that when we do this we only increase the negativity and the guilt that one is already struggling with.
If we phrase our question: “You are getting married next week? You must be so EXCITED!” How is one to respond? “Actually, that new bride glow you think I have is sweat. I am about to throw up….” Or “You are due in a month? I bet you CAN’T WAIT!” Kind of hard to follow up with, “I can’t even imagine sleepless nights and nursing again as I can barely make it through the day as it is!” Or “You just started college, don’t you just LOVE it?” Doesn’t feel great to have to say, “Actually, it is so much more challenging than I expected and I am feeling really overwhelmed and lonely.”
We mean well. We really do. But when our question already has the answer, it really isn’t a question. Rather than asking, we are telling the other how we want them to feel. How we expect them to feel. How they should feel. And in doing so we are not leaving room for an honest conversation.
Think how much safer it would be if we approached someone with truly open-ended questions: “How are you feeling?” “How are you doing?” “How is it going?” If someone feels they can tell you that they are overwhelmed and nervous, and then receive a response that it is totally normal to feel that way, they might actually start to feel less overwhelmed and nervous and more happy and excited which is what we were hoping for all along!
There is truly no one way that anyone should be feeling at any given time. We all have different circumstances, baggage, backgrounds and situations that affect our reactions and our ability to respond to what is happening in our lives. And because of that, all of our feelings are real and all are legitimate, even when they seem out of place.
So the next time you want to know how someone is doing, try to make sure to really ask. Not tell.
[Featured photo credit: Petra Kobayashi]
Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the Co-Director of Interinclusion.org, a social mosaic which perpetuates the arts, sciences, literature, and music through Jewish tradition. She was also the creator and editor of TheJewishWoman.org and has worked as a producer for shows relating to Judaism on the Oprah Winfrey Network and HARPO Productions. She lives with her family in Danby, Vermont where they run Jewish experiential retreats.