You landed that promotion, conquered a mountain of debt or finally got him to put a ring on it. But is that all there is? How do you know when you've "arrived"? Best-selling author and life coach Valorie Burton shows you how to stop your expectations from sabotaging your hardwon joy—and offers a three-step plan to keep the good times rolling.
She's a sharp nonprofit executive whose penchant for shopping once buried her in nearly $60,000 of credit card debt. She used her laser focus and knack for landing side gigs to dig her way out in less than two years. Exhausted by the demands of an inept boss and a job she never left before 9 P.M. most nights, Aisha quit. By the end of that week, she'd already lined up a yearlong freelance job that paid the same as her full-time salary but allowed her to work from home, set her own hours and be present for her husband and two growing children. It's the kind of career move many women dream of—the kind of change you get to make when you're at the top of your game. But ask her if she's in her prime, and Aisha will argue, adamantly, no.
She's had more dead-end relationships than she'd care to count, but five years ago she finally decided she'd had enough drama and dysfunction. Through coaching, journaling and a bevy of self-help books, she unpacked her emotional baggage and created a vision of a healthy, happy love life. Now she's raising a toddler with her adoring husband and experiencing a level of joy she's never had before in her family life. Even with all these blessings, she just can't shake the nagging feeling she isn't a good enough wife or mom. Self-doubt is her constant companion: "Should I be home more? Do I need to be more patient? Is my son where he should be for his age?" she asks.
Is it possible you, like these women, have self-sabotaging expectations about what it means to arrive at a golden age in your life, whether in your work, relationships, career or finances? You constantly strive toward something more, but when you get there, you don't even recognize the finish line. Your every achievement becomes simply a gateway to the next goal. Or worse, you mistake your destination for the journey, never savoring the sweet spot of having arrived. A groundbreaking study about women and happiness, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, points to an interesting trend: Over the past four decades, while opportunities for us have skyrocketed compared with those of previous generations, happiness for millions of women begins to decline at Aisha's age—the early to mid-forties. Could this be the time when high expectations finally meet reality and we are left asking, "Is this it?"
The Paradox of High Expectations
As women, we have a tendency to set the bar super-high when determining if we have achieved enough to be considered worthy to move on to the next level. We're less likely than our male counterparts to be confident in our achievements and to highlight our milestones. That means that though we might be at the top of our game, we behave as though we're still paying our dues. But what if you were actually much further along than you think? Consider: A 2003 study showed that women typically apply for a job only when they meet 100 percent of the stated job requirements. Men, on the other hand, go for it if they meet just 60 percent of the requirements. The long-term consequence is that we are often left out of opportunities—not because we aren't ready but because we don't recognize that we are.
But the issue of expectations pertains to far more than climbing the career ladder. Perfectionism steals your joy because no matter how good life gets, you can always point to something that proves you haven't yet done enough. Studies show the higher your expectations, the more elusive happiness becomes. So if life needs to be perfect before you consider yourself in your prime, you won't realize you're in the "good ole days" until you're reminiscing about them years from now. In fact, it's possible you're in them today.
You can be in your prime in one area while working toward it in another. Aisha, for example, considers herself in the golden age with her hubby and children, but not in her career. Pam is flourishing financially, but she's struggling to embrace her family triumphs.
As you move into your prime, your ability to enjoy it can be destroyed by something psychologists call hedonic adaptation. It is our tendency to adapt to continually improving circumstances. For example, ten years ago you would have considered it a big deal to have your own office or be the goto person at work to handle a big presentation. But now you expect you should be there.
Upward social comparisons can also skew your expectations. Today it seems everyone is "Instagram fabulous." Between social media, reality television and a 24/7 news cycle, there are more opportunities than ever to compare yourself with others. Ten years older than most of the preschool moms in her neighborhood, Pam sees her mature age as a reminder that she "should have gotten it together" sooner. Such observations can make you less likely to recognize when you have, in fact, found your sweet spot.
When I suggested to Aisha that she is in the prime of her career, she laughed. "This? Is this it?" she asked. Rather than insist her career is not all that it could be, Aisha could bask in the accomplishment of being able to quit her job without missing a beat. She admits she couldn't have done that in her twenties, but for the past 15 years she has built the relationships and skill set that put her in demand. Does her career look like the woman who is an executive at an even bigger organization? No. But neither does it look like the average worker. To put it into perspective: She needs to balance the upward comparisons with the downward ones.
Expecting Less, Getting More
I must admit, what I thought my life would be like is quite different from how it turned out. Perhaps you can relate. Life has a way of not going the way you planned. Your prime may happen in a different decade than you expected. I imagined the excitement of being a best-selling author in my twenties and believed marriage and family would magically fall into place in my thirties. The reality is this: I wrote seven books before I had a real best seller and stumbled in the relationship department before marrying The One at age 40. It sure wasn't the timeline I'd imagined, but it was well worth the wait. Marriage made me an insta-mom of two little girls—an unexpected blessing that wasn't written into my vision. I'm happier than I've ever been partly because I learned to be grateful for how life unfolded rather than insist it had to line up with the vision I created. The constant striving toward some perfect ideal eventually forced me to ask, When is enough, enough? When do I arrive at this elusive destination called happy? The truth is, enough is enough when you decide it is—when you stop piling on more requirements for happiness and appreciate just how far you've already come.
In fact, when you're in your prime, you may begin to notice you require less to be happy. There is a certain centeredness that comes when you are satisfied right where you are. Life goes by quickly. Too many of us find ourselves spending prime time believing the best is yet to come. If instead you open your eyes, you can consciously live your life to the fullest right now.
*Note: Clients' names have been changed.
This article was originally published in the September issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.