We all have a lot of expectations to live up to. We’re supposed to keep a household running smoothly – and immaculately clean at the same time. We’re also cooks, housekeepers, household finance managers, launderers, counselors, childcare givers (and sometimes parent caregivers, too), chauffeurs, activity managers, employees or business owners…the list is endless. Somehow, we’re supposed to do all of this, look our best at all times, have perfectly behaved and well-groomed children, and never run out of coffee creamer.
This is a delusional, entirely made-up fantasy that has no basis in real life.
It’s time to get real with ourselves before we burn out thinking we should have a stress free life without actually take steps to get there.
An Expert Weighs In
The problem of expecting too much from yourself on a consistent basis is a common one.
“In my private practice, I’ve had executives and business owners who are hugely productive,” said Justin Baksh, MS, LMHC, LPC, MCAP and Chief Clinical Officer of Foundations Wellness Center. “They expect to function on a high level each and every day. However, it’s unrealistic and burnout always comes.”
The crash always comes after running too hot for too long.
Why is that? Because human beings aren’t pieces of machinery.
“Even the Energizer Bunny does eventually run out of juice at some point,” Baksh said.
Why is it Important to Aim For A Stress Free Life?
First, continuous, sustained stress levels result in a host of bad consequences for our bodies, running the gamut from headaches to heart attacks.
Second, if we don’t know how to decrease and/or cope well with our life’s stressors, we may end up turning to unhealthy behaviors for a release. We may lose our ability to control impulsive behavior, such as overeating or overspending. Unfortunately, “retail therapy” and similar behaviors tend to be just the beginning if we don’t have enough healthy ways to cope with the stress in our lives.
“Studies have shown that chronic stress can drive you to addiction,” Baksh shared. “The more stress you face, the greater chance you have of abusing substances and becoming addicted.”
“When you are stressed, your prefrontal cortex, which typically regulates behavior, stops acting as it should. It’s no longer ‘gatekeeping,’ or causing you to think about the consequences of your actions so that you can put the brakes on as needed,” said Baksh. “Instead, you go into automatic pilot mode, and more easily act on impulse. You may also turn to illicit substances in an attempt to ‘self-medicate.’”
The good news? There is a healthier and more effective way to deal with stress.
It’s Not the Thing, It’s Our Perception of the Thing
It’s important to understand that not all stress is created equal: What is stressful to one person isn’t to another.
Someone who feels prepared and ready for a presentation or exam won’t experience much stress. Someone who feels they haven’t studied or prepared enough – or, worse, can’t recall much of what they did – will feel much more stress and pressure.
This is why merely thinking that we should be doing more than we are can cause stress.
The reality is that stress is a part of life. Minor stress can actually be helpful by motivating us to act in ways to create needed change in our lives or accomplish goals. Even major positive changes like getting that promotion or relocating to a better area are still sources of stress (something called eustress) because it means new or additional demands that we didn’t have to deal with before. Sometimes it’s our perspective that needs closer examination.
We need to give ourselves grace and space to have realistic expectations for ourselves in order to have
The Key to Happiness
We’ve probably all heard that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day.” That’s true.
What’s also true – and much more illuminating – is that we don’t all have the same tasks and responsibilities to cram into that 24 hours.
“Many families are dual-income and have to juggle kids, finances, debt, sports practices, birthday parties, school projects – the ‘typical life.’ In this situation, if you can get out of the house on time with three small children and not forget their lunches, this is quite an accomplishment,” Baksh shared. “Similarly, if, when you come home at night and can get everyone fed, bathed and in bed so that you have some ‘me time’ by 9 pm, you have really accomplished something in your household. You need to start viewing it that way and not beat yourself up.”
If this remotely describes your current situation, don’t compare yourself to that single, financially independent, well-dressed woman with no kids. Of course she can get more done with seeming ease…she doesn’t have the same responsibilities you do.
Instead of measuring yourself using someone else’s circumstances, you need to get to the heart of the matter. Ask yourself: What is really possible in a day for you?
You Can Still Reach Your Goals
If you adjust your expectations based on your unique situation and circumstances, you can start to feel more accomplished each day and start living
“First, do some soul-searching and get to know your inner critic,” explains Baksh. “You can recognize it as the nagging voice in your mind that’s constantly pointing out your shortcomings and is often the source of those comparisons with other people.” He suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- What do I truly value?
- What am I striving for?
- How do I define accomplishment and fulfillment?
- Is this realistic given my unique set of circumstances?
- Am I holding myself to too high of a standard that I cannot achieve and/or maintain?
Goal accomplishment is still attainable, no matter how packed your day is. It just may be that you have to prioritize, tackling one thing at a time.
For example, getting out of debt by setting a monthly budget, losing weight, and renovating your house may not all happen at once (unless you want even more stress). Pick just one of those to work on first.
Once you’ve established a realistic goal (that takes your current situation into account), write it down. “Putting things on paper establishes a different commitment level,” said Baksh.
Next, tell someone what your goal is. Sharing your goal triggers yet another, higher level of accountability.
Finally, break the goal into small, specific steps, such as “walk the dog for 30 minutes twice a day,” if your goal is to increase your activity.
When you determine how you will reach your goal (for example, losing 15 pounds by exercising and cutting out sugar), assign specific timeframes to each step – say, losing 5 pounds in 30, 10 in 60, and the full 15 in 90 days.
You may need to adjust those timeframes as you get closer to those marks, for example, moving the goal completion date from 90 days to six months, but don’t judge yourself for it. Progress is progress and the most important thing is to aim for
“The key is to just keep moving toward your goals while keeping your inner critic in check,” Baksh said. “As you take the steps and stay on the plan, you will feel a sense of accomplishment in your life.”
Why Success Makes You Feel Great
There’s even more at stake if you continue on the path of unrealistic expectations and the resulting, constant stress: You may rob yourself of a
“There are reward pathways in the brain that release ‘feel-good’ chemicals such as dopamine whenever we achieve a goal or accomplish a task,” said Baksh. “This is why it’s critical to create and maintain realistic expectations and goals for yourself. You are denying yourself of these chemicals…chemicals that motivate you to continue performing in life. If you can never meet your expectations, you don’t ever get that payoff.”
Don’t be a victim of out-of-control expectations.
Do yourself a favor by assessing what can be versus what others (or ourselves) think should be. Set a realistic goal for having a stress free life and work step-by-step. In just 30 days, you could be thanking yourself…and feeling on top of the world!