I have a birthday coming up. I’ve always loved celebrating my birthday, but this year feels a little different. As I’m approaching another year of my life, I am increasingly aware that my life looks much different in reality than what I had imagined it would as I was younger. I spent some time imagining that ideal life that my younger self had dreamed up, and can’t help but notice that I’m pretty far off. Of course, this is not an indication that I’m not happy with where I’m at in life – I’m actually extremely proud of myself and now wouldn’t change a thing. It just doesn’t fit those big dreams I held for years, and those feelings are real.
I could very easily let that mean, little voice run through my head – “you should’ve worked harder”, “you should’ve been better”. I could “should” on myself all day long. That’s the easy thing to do. It feels natural for us to come down hard. This is very different from holding yourself accountable, though. This is sending you on a shame spiral. Shame makes you feel that you are somehow bad – that who you are is defective, undeserving, or uncapable. Shame does nothing for you, and that little voice inside of your head is not your friend. Shame does not make you feel empowered, and is not a catalyst for action and change.
What we can do instead is practice radical acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that we approve of something, surrender, or have to release our right to be upset about it. You can practice acceptance and still feel how you feel. You can practice acceptance and still take that step forward asking yourself – “where do I want to go from here? How do I want to handle this?” Acceptance in this sense is more easily understood as acknowledgment. When we are able to acknowledge our reality, we are able to integrate the event, loss, or situation into our entire experience, rather than attempting to blot out what we wish we could let go of in our lives. This does not mean we find the “silver lining” and search for some rainbow at the end of our struggle.
When I began this blog, I googled “grieving your ideal life”. I couldn’t find a ton. A little later on, I googled “finding the silver lining”. I found pages of articles and blog posts. The problem with a silver lining attitude is that it invalidates our pain. Those statements often start with “at least…” or end with “it could always be worse”. When we’re unable to acknowledge our pain fully, we find ourselves denying the dark parts of our struggles that ache to break free. We often then find ourselves back at our “should” self-talk – “I shouldn’t feel this way”, “I should just see the good”, or “I should appreciate what I have”. Just because something could be worse does NOT mean that your pain isn’t just as real as anyone else’s, and just because you can somehow find something good out of a bad situation does NOT mean that you have to deny the pain and struggle. You are not required to appreciate the bad things that happen in your life or to find the “why” of the situation whether there is some benefit or growth that stems from it or not.