Do you fantasize about life without your current problems and imagine how great things could be once you’ve got solutions for the stuff that’s stressing you out or getting you down?
I’m so sick of this job: I can’t wait until I’m in my ‘dream’ career path!
It’s gonna be awesome to get out of this depleting marriage and be with a compatible partner.
Everything will be easier once I’m out of debt and earning more.
Most of us dream and project ourselves into fantasy futures where things are and feel better - and sometimes, when conditions shift, life really does feel easier or more pleasurable.
For example, I recently got a new nanny for my young kids. In the past, it was a challenge to coordinate multiple childcare providers and I was always doing extra leg-work to juggle the logistics. Having just one care provider streamlines my life and alleviates some small but persistent pain points: I’m grateful!
Maybe you once lived in a crappy apartment with a horrible landlord and your toilet endlessly leaked and your neighbours had ridiculously loud arguments and sex and their footsteps were so thunderous that you often thought, ‘for the love of god, have they welcomed giants into their home?!’ Now that you’re in your quiet, spacious, well-cared-for studio loft, perhaps you honestly feel blessed every single day. Months and years later, you adore your living space and don’t take it for granted. That kind of ‘evergreen gratitude’ does happen.
However, the kicker is that often, very soon after we achieve or experience something we dreamed of, when ‘the new normal’ is in place and the novelty has worn off, most of us very quickly forget to actively appreciate our present reality - the once longed for and idealized circumstances - as remarkable and wondrous. And sometimes, we don’t get what we bargained for and the new situation is not at all what it was cracked up to be in our minds!
There’s a psychological term for this phenomenon, called: ‘the arrival fallacy.’
The idea is that we tend to fantasize about arriving in new circumstances, believing that shifted conditions will transform our fundamental wellbeing. However, when we actually arrive at the desired destination, we often don’t experience the situation to be as amazing as we imagined it would be - or very soon after an initial surge of appreciation, we habituate to those circumstances. Quickly and unconsciously we set our minds to somewhere else we want to arrive and we’re in that loop again.
So, one option is that we keep playing out this cycle, driven by the assumption that our internal experience will be enhanced through changing external conditions.
But, if you wanna bust out of this arrival fallacy loop and be more conscious in how you think about and approach problems in your life (and even make it more likely that you’ll land great new problems ahead!), I’ve got a few suggestions:
First of all, instead of fantasizing about a life without problems, embrace the reality that life will always have them. Always. (Sorry to burst your bubble! Please don’t shoot the messenger)! ;)
Secondly, remind yourself that everyone is bumbling along, that no one is living a problem-free life. Not Beyonce, not the Kardashians, not Bill and Melinda Gates.
And, hey, important side note: I get that structural conditions are real. Some people and groups are getting the short end of the ‘collective stick’ while others are getting the long end of it. There should be no denying how this affects people’s experience of problems experienced at a personal level.
Let’s face it, some people’s problems are on the scale of how to manage and invest their buckets of money and deal with intrusive in-laws and other people’s problems are trying to access healthy food and cover rent and get a restraining order against an abusive ex and they are coping with significant levels of collective intergenerational trauma that manifest daily. Privilege and structural power are deeply impactful and our individual experiences cannot be isolated from social, political, and economic contexts.
However, it is also true that no matter how privileged any individual is or how incredible someone’s life looks on Instagram, I promise you, every single living human experiences problems, challenges, and pain.
Pro Tip: when you see those social media glossy, shiny, happy pics, remember: icebergs. You’re only seeing what’s on the surface and all that content is curated. When we’re creating perceptions of other peoples’ lives at that level, it’s easy to get hooked by the facade and forget that there’s a whole huge mass of energy underneath these images, much more complex than superficial appearances.
So, when you remember that there will always be challenges in life and you truly get that everyone is suffering, that all of us are making our way through this messy and tender terrain called human experience with bumps, bruises, tensions, anxieties, self-doubts, illness, aging, all the things; when you know in your bones that no one’s breezing along just riding on easy street, you can drop the vicious tendency to ‘compare and despair’ and get envious or down on yourself and compound your suffering.
But what about the richness of a life where we set meaningful goals, enjoy the process of achieving them, expand our lives and selves (often with benefits rippling to our families and communities) and then continue evolving in such a way? Isn’t that a healthy ideal?
While it may seem like I’m contradicting myself, I agree that this is a wonderful way to live.
I’m not trying to promote that we live lives of passive acceptance, grimly resigned to realities that could be improved and enhanced, reminding ourselves that future fantasies are only projections and thus heck, let’s not even bother aiming to create new possibilities.
Not at all. I absolutely want you to kick some of those old problems to the curb and grow.
I’m a coach, for goodness’ sake: I’m all about conscious evolution and creating new realities!
Almost nothing lights me up like witnessing people bust through limits and grow into expanded versions of themselves, doing amazing things that scare their pants off and thrill them in equal measure - daring to follow the whisper of their own heartfelt wisdom and longings.
I mean: that is magic!
Further, I wholeheartedly believe that our ability to desire, to dream, to imagine, to have faith in wonderful new possibilities is an essential component of a healthy, stable, thriving human mind - and that these inner capacities help us take powerful, creative action in our lives and world.
However, what I also know for sure is that even people who are constantly growing, pursuing and achieving their vital and brave dreams still have problems.
There’s even a little phrase for this evolutionary experience in my personal growth circles: “new level, new devil” - the idea being that when you expand your life in some way, you’ll outgrow old pain points and inevitably encounter new ones.
So, perhaps you screw up your courage to leave your corporate job and start the small craft brewery you always dreamed of. In the first few years of establishing your small business, you appreciate the creative entrepreneurial path, but you’re more anxious than you expected to not have your old benefits and steady pay check. You lost your old problems. You gained new ones.
Or you leave your deadened marriage and seek out that new dream partner. Well, maybe that next relationship doesn’t work out. Or it does - but even though you’re crazy sympatico with your new sweetheart and the relationship is stunningly lovely, you’re challenged by some unexpected frictions and simply different areas of difficulty than the ones you once bemoaned with your ex.
Maybe you pay off your debts. You can throw cash around without feeling stretched so thin, you’re freaking proud to have kicked your finances to the next level AND life isn’t perfect. Your favourite cousin recently got cancer, your spirited toddler is straining your last nerve and you just lost your cool with her and wrote a confessional note in your parenting Facebook group, and why is it still so damn exhausting to figure out what’s for dinner? Like, every night?! In spite of a broadly impactful financial achievement, life is still, amidst the new pleasures and freedoms, threaded with sadness, grief, difficulties, and irritations.
So, all this musing leaves me wondering:
Can you more deeply appreciate - even enjoy!? - the problems you have now?
Could you embrace them like puzzles, revere them as mysteries and cosmic riddles? Let them be your own little ‘grit in the oyster:’ honor them with conscious attention and nurture faith that you may ultimately transmute them into pearls?
Can you remind yourself that you’ll live your way from one set of questions into answers and eventually into the next evolution of questions… and that this is just how life goes?
Super Rockstar (You’re Almost Enlightened!) Bonus: Can you detach a bit, view your life with a little distance and savour the evolution of plot and characters almost like a movie?
Because for all the ways you wish your future will be ‘better,’ I’m gonna bet it will mostly be...different.
Heck, I hope happier. I wish you healthier. More connected, purposeful, whatever you long for. Rich, in the fullest sense of the word. All the good things! I have 100% faith that you can influence your life and your future and create amazing new realities (and please consider hiring me if you want support to do this)!
Yet, with all that said, I’m still gonna place my bets on your future being less about better than now and more about simply being different.
So, instead of fantasizing about not having problems, I encourage you to ask yourself:
What are the problems I want to have?
What future challenges will mean that you’ve taken wise and courageous risks and dared to move in joyful directions?
Would you love the ‘problem’ of learning to earn and responsibly manage more money than you do now?
Would it be awesome for you to be in a new partnership and you’ll embrace the ‘problem’ of figuring out how to re-jig your life to work with new rhythms and routines the include a great companion?
Are you ready to step into new levels of power and influence in your work, and you’ll embrace the ‘problem’ of working with fears and vulnerabilities that arise are you move out of your comfort zone?
It’s dynamic and pretty wonderful to grow out of tired ruts, to release ourselves from old problems we’ve rubbed against for months… or years… or maybe even our whole lives - and to claim our new problems!
We’re wired for learning, setting goals, feeling purposeful, developing mastery, solving problems: it’s rich and exciting to expand our way into new problems.
But you will never have no problems.
That’s the story I’m encouraging you to let go of.
Be wary of denigrating your present and fantasizing about your future, caught in loops of oscillating hope, fear, anxieties or trying to wrestle life to adhere to your scripts and ideals.
Aim for embracing your present (as it is!) while connecting courageously with your authentic desires for the future. Enjoy the ride itself as you live into what will come (as much as you can; I know that sometimes it’s easier said than done). Be kind. Relax as much as you can. Laugh! Learn.
In the end, when it comes to arriving, the only place you can ever truly arrive is in the present.
(Spiritual masters, in all traditions, are always going on and on about the damn here and now). ;)
So, arrive here - at your beautiful here, in all its flawed glory - and here’s a shout out to your best future problems, too!
In solidarity on this wonderful and bewildering human ride with you-
P.S. If you’re excited to play bigger and more joyfully this fall or you want a little supportive boost as the summer days dwindle and you prepare for autumn, please check out some upcoming free workshops here. They are coming up in the next couple of days - Toronto-based and virtual options - and I’d love to see you there! N
Nicola Holmes is a Life Coach who works with individuals and facilitates “The Expansion Circle,” a transformative group program for women. Nicola helps people who are feeling stuck or struggling to realize their goals; overwhelmed by life change; or determined to ‘level up’ & turn their dreams into reality. She’s also mama to two young and spirited kids, community-minded, a CBC-lover, voracious reader, and is currently obsessed with podcasts! Join Nicola’s Facebook community or join the email party to access inspiration and resources to fuel the changes you yearn for.