(Channelling my inner Spice Girls for today’s blog title? Why yes, I guess I am…)
If I asked for your measures of a successful life, what sort of answers would you give me?
Of course they’d differ from person to person, but here in the Western world – and in many cases further afield – there are likely to be a lot of commonalities.
You know the ones I mean: own a home, have plenty of money, rise to the top of our careers, get married, have babies, inhabit a fit and healthy body…
The list goes on of course but the fact is that this shopping list of success is ingrained in so many of us from such a young age. So much so, in fact, that when someone wants something outside of that list society is only too quick to tell them that they’re wrong – to call them weird or to ask the endless questions about whether they’re sure?
Just look at the way we react to women who say they don’t want children for goodness’ sake!
But lately I’ve been asking a lot more questions – not only to those people stepping off the beaten track, but also to those who do want what society tells them - and one question in particular: Why?
Questioning the norm
That’s not to say I think it’s wrong or weird to want the norm; not at all!
In fact, let me stop right now and tell you that I’m someone who believes it’s not only OK but actually utterly flipping wonderful to want whatever it is that lights you up and makes you feel like you’re living exactly the right life for you.
As far as I’m concerned there is nothing more beautiful to see than a life in which someone is fulfilled; surrounded by the people, doing the things and living the values which are wholly right for them, however that may look.
What I’ve heard a little too often to be comfortable with though, are the people who are chasing certain dreams in life not because it’s what they truly want, but because the world has told them it will make them happy.
You know the people I mean: the ones who have a Director position by the time they’re 40 but hate their jobs and find themselves burned out and desperate for a way out a year later; the people who marry their first boy or girlfriend only to realise that marriage doesn’t make what was already an unsatisfying relationship any better; and the parents who of course love their children, but do go through the rest of their lives feeling like something is missing…
Again, I know that’s not everyone – some people fall in love in the schoolyard at 14 and know they want to spend the rest of their lives exploring the world with that person, or were born to be corporate hotshots or parents (or both!) and find their greatest fulfilment by satisfying that urge within themselves.
But my question to you; my question to all of us is a simple one:
Why do you want this?
It’s something I’ve talked about a lot over the years with single clients who were under pressure from their friends to settle down, and with those who were regularly being told by their parents that it was time to get “proper” jobs.
In some of those cases we found that those were things my clients really did want for their own lives; in others we found that life for them had a very different plan to the one others expected.
But in every single case we found that that pressure to live up to the check box life society likes to encourage us towards was not only making them stressed and frustrated but had very nearly led them to make multiple choices that in they knew in retrospect would’ve made them categorically miserable.
Just a few months ago one client said to me: “It sounds like the craziest thing, but I’ve suddenly realised I don’t need the house in the suburbs to be a grown-up.” Seems small, I know – but for this client the realisation that they could plan for their future without having to live through the three hour daily commute they’d been dreading was a seriously big deal which not only left them feeling less stressed about creating the future they dreamed of, but along way actually motivated them more to tick off the things they really did want in life.
Of course the opposite is true too; I’ve spoken with so many people over the years who were trying so hard to rebel from society or the expectations of others that they’d lost sight of what they actually wanted and were just as miserable as they’d expected to be in a 9-5 job with 2.4 children.
It almost doesn’t matter what path we take, and what the “goals” and “achievements” are that we tick off along the way. What matters is the why, and the how we feel as we move through that journey.
For me, this is a lesson I had to learn over and over before I got to make peace with what I truly wanted out of life.
The easy one to tell you about is the director in my first corporate job who told me that he could see me going a long way in that field… and was pretty disappointed when I told him I intended to go back to college, and dreamed of being self employed in a job that allowed me to really help people even if that did mean I wouldn’t necessarily get the designer handbags everyone told me where a mark of success.
The harder one is about when I got engaged at 18 to a great guy, but realised the life we were headed towards – although nice enough, and totally normal to many of the people around me – was not the one I wanted, so chose instead to go out and create the right life for me rather than settle into one that other people told me I should have.
The hardest one still came around the time a lot of my friends started having babies and I found my heart breaking a little every time someone told me slightly condescendingly that it was OK if I didn’t want kids – which of course it would be, and in honesty that rebellion from the expectations of society would make life a damn sight easier every time I hold a baby or have those conversations. But it’s also not what I want.
So instead of letting those conversations break my heart, I sat down and thought about why I wanted children – and then used that as my motivation not to rush out and make babies with the first available person I found like some people seemed to think I should (seriously people…), but instead to do all the work I needed to try and make sure that when the time comes I will be the mother I’ve always wanted to be.
Does that stop me getting frustrated when people tell me I’m “running out of time”, or curb those broody feelings when they pop up? Not always, but it does remind me of why motherhood is important to me, and helps me navigate a path towards my future children without the pressure and sadness that once would’ve left me feeling shitty.
What happens when you ask the why?
Adding the why into that question about what you wish for in life isn’t about changing your dreams or asking you to walk a path no one else does… Although sometimes that will be the end result.
Just like my client and the house or me and the corporate job, sometimes you will realise that those whys have nothing to do with you personally and choose to change your path completely.
On the other side of things though that question will simply remind you of your own motivations behind the wishes that truly are yours and so help you to reaffirm the road towards those things that’s right for you.
And so my invitation to you this week is to sit in front of your vision board, to look back over your most recent list of wishes, or just to image the future you’ve always pictured for yourself; and then to look at every aspect of that and ask one simple question – why?
If the answer is “because it feels right in my gut and truly lights me up” then that’s amazing, go for it and choose the right path for you to get there.
But if it’s anything other then that – maybe because someone told you you should, because it’s what you’ve always expected or because it’s the way someone you admire lives their life? Well then maybe it’s time to think more about that, and about how life could look for you instead.
And remember, if you’re looking for someone to help you with these big questions – or struggling with your place in a life less travelled – then Soul-Led Therapy can give you a safe space to talk through all of this; the whys and the whats that they lead to.