The morning air is cold and dry. Beneath the trees, on the trails covered with cracked and faded-brown leaves, it smells like winter. There is no one else around and I imagine myself on a mountain.
I am trying on this Monday morning to approach the week “without expectation.” I say these words to myself on the empty trail; they seem truer when I speak them aloud.
Maybe it’s because I am now “officially” a year older – my birthday was last week – that my thoughts about where I should be at this point in my life, or what I should have accomplished, are worse than usual. My tendency to compare myself to others has been strong and inevitably I’ve been feeling bad about myself. (“Why aren’t you this?” “Why haven’t you done that?” “If you weren’t so lazy you could have [xyz].”
Maybe, too, my anxiety is running especially high in anticipation of next week’s election – I know I’m not alone in feeling scared. I oscillate between doing the small things I can (donating, voting, writing postcards) and being paralyzed by fear and helplessness.
Usually when things are uncertain and I feel bad about myself I return to unhelpful coping mechanisms to maintain a semblance of control. I make plans for things I “need” to do or accomplish that week; I’ll sign up for too much; I’ll put pressure on myself to accomplish something grand. My expectations of myself are unrealistic and founded on fear and shame rather than pride and self-esteem. They are harmful rather than helpful as I always end up feeling worse when I (inevitably) cannot meet the exceedingly high expectations I have set for myself. In addition, I am unable to celebrate whatever things I may have accomplished because anything less than my original expectation is automatic failure. It’s all-or-nothing in my mind: perfection or disaster, there is no in between.
So there is no list of “things I need to do in order to be good enough/not fail” this Monday morning. I sit with the part of me that wants to give in to this compulsion to plan, to act, to expect of myself, but I don’t give in to it. Instead I close my weekly planner and go for a walk. (To be more explicit: a walk, rather than some intense exercise or a workout with a goal in mind. This is me slowing down. Without expectation.)
Monday evening: I lie in bed with Thomas, we watch an episode of “The Great British Bake Show.” In a shocking turn of events, I have not saved the world today. I have not single-handedly influenced the results of next week’s election; I have not founded my dream nonprofit; I have not run a world-record-breaking time on the trail nearby. And if I had started my day by expecting these things of myself…well, let’s be honest, none of them were going to happen anyway. My expectations would have done nothing but set me up for feeling like a failure at the end of the day. My belief that these expectations “motivate me” is unfounded. In retrospect, not once has setting too-high expectations meant I’ve achieved more. If anything I am more motivated when I begin from a place of acceptance and self-esteem: that I am OK as I am, that whatever I do or don’t do that day has no bearing on my worth as a person.
Am I overthinking my birthday? Probably. But it feels good to write this out, to acknowledge and give voice to parts of myself I’m ashamed of. Also – and maybe this will be the more optimistic part 2 of my “birthday reflection” series – Thomas took me to Sonoma for some amazing wine-tasting and so, as we lie in bed watching adorable British people bake biscuits, my anxieties are equally matched by my gratitude in this first day of my next year of life.