"Giving up on your dream does not make you a failure or a quitter."

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Episode 127 -- July 1, 2021

New Dreams Ahead

The thought of letting go of our dreams may seem like the worst idea ever. Throughout our lives, we're often told to "never give up on your dream." While there is absolutely nothing wrong with chasing our dreams, problems can arise when we don't allow ourselves to be practical.

In The Next Happy: Let Go of the Life You Planned and Find a New Way Forward, marriage and family therapist Tracy Cleantis examines how persistence and dedication may be able to drive a dream to the finish line. She also notes how these same qualities can drive us into the ground instead. Cleantis tells us that we should not blame ourselves for falling short of our dreams. We must learn to accept that certain things are just out of our control.

All of us in recovery are resilient or else we would not have made it this far. However, we still must be careful not to fall captive to our dreams. We can be so dead set on one dream that everything else in our life becomes secondary—including our recovery. This excerpt reminds us that giving up on certain dreams does not make us a failure or a quitter. Letting go can be a healthy decision that allows us to change our perspective and develop new goals to reach the next happy. We see how important it is to move forward in our lives when things don't go exactly as planned.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

The Dark Side of Optimism
"Never give up" is so beloved a philosophy that we dare not say out loud that we are actually letting our dream go—that we are no longer going to try to save the marriage or be a star athlete or be a mother or launch the start-up or get the corner office or achieve all the great things we set out to achieve. Seriously, there are some things you just can't say out loud: (1) You can't shout "Fire!" in a public place unless there really is something burning, and (2) you can't say you are giving up your dream unless you are willing to be seen as a complete and total failure. See for yourself: Google "give up on a dream," page through all the returns, and see what unwanted word appears again and again in the advice that people are giving. Yeah, that's right. Google and everyone else are telling you what you have already heard a million times before: Never give up on a dream. Never, never, never, ever give up on your dream—never! It is standard advice. It is an answer of hope and optimism, which is lovely on the one hand, but here's the thing that isn't often said about the other hand: Sometimes hope is sadistic, sometimes optimism is dangerous, and sometimes this annoying thing called reality really must be faced if you are to preserve your sanity.

When patients come to my office and sit across from me with tears in their eyes and their heart breaking because their marriage fell apart, or their desire to have children has been unfulfilled, or they were unable to realize a long-held career dream, there is usually a component of shame to their story. They most often tell me their story as if they are admitting a terrible secret. If they dare admit it at all, they may not look me in the eye; they may whisper the words. Often they go with the Sour Grapes Method of coping and pretend that they never had the dream to begin with. We've all employed this method a thousand times: "I really didn't want to win"; "I'm actually relieved it didn't work out." We resort to this tactic because it saves us from actually having to admit defeat. If we didn't even really want it to begin with, then we don't have to feel ashamed of our failure.

Here's a news flash: Deciding to stop pursuing something that is not working for you, and that may in fact be destructive for you, does not mean you are a quitter or a loser. You might want to read that last sentence again. I know there is a part of you that knows that you are not a quitter, but there are other voices that may be masking this knowledge. Maybe you had a dad who told you that just because you didn't keep up with guitar lessons you were a quitter, or maybe you had a coach tell you that because you decided not to go out for the varsity team you were a quitter. Those voices live in your head, too, and maybe they are shutting down the voice that knows it is time to let go of your dream. It took me some years and a whole lot of therapy to tune in to the voice that could calm and soothe me and help me look at things in a rational way, but now I can call up that voice just like a station on the radio. The voice sounds a lot like Glinda the Good Witch. Listen carefully, and you can hear your version of that voice, too: Giving up on your dream does not make you a failure or a quitter.

Books like The Secret tell us that all we have to do is imagine a goal clearly and really want it, and it will then automatically, naturally, and easily happen for us. But what does it mean when it doesn't? Are we a bad person? Did we not really want it? Did we not visualize clearly enough? Is it our fault that we didn't get it? Or is the real secret that there are some things in life that are just simply beyond our control? Embedded in that last question is a hard truth that many people go through a lot of suffering trying to deny: There are some things in life that are just simply beyond our control.

I wanted a baby so desperately. Giving up that dream was harder than anything I did in my entire life—and yet, I had to. You hear people say that the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results. My moment of giving up was a moment of mental health, even though it hurt like a son of a bitch—and even though it might have looked like quitting to people on the outside.

The Self-Blame Game
Why do we blame ourselves for our dreams not working out the way we'd hoped? It's the same reason that the patients I see with traumatic childhoods tend to blame themselves rather than their abusers: If you blame yourself, there is more of an illusion of a locus of control and a sense of agency or ability to impact the situation. If the trauma or loss was caused by others or by events outside of your control, then you feel more out of control, which is not a comfortable feeling.

I know I did this with my own inability to conceive. I came up with what, in hindsight, were irrational narratives about how this was further evidence of my inability to get what I want and proof that therefore something must be wrong with me. I looked to my past for evidence for this irrational argument, and I found it. You see, I needed that evidence; I needed this to be at least partly my fault because, in a strange way, that was more tolerable than the outcome just being random and chaotic. Because how exactly do you impact random and chaotic? I needed to believe that I was a "sinner" and that my not being able to get pregnant was my fault. It's probably easy for anyone, including you, to look at my story and see that it isn't my fault. I don't know you, and I don't know where you are in your quest to fulfill your dream, but I can bet that it would be easy for me to look at your story and see all the ways you're not at fault in not fulfilling it as well. We tend to be very good at seeing when other people's situations are beyond their control—even as they desperately try to manage the outcome—but are much less skilled at seeing it in ourselves.

How do you know when it's time to stop trying? This one is tough, but I would say there are some clues: In the movie Silver Linings Playbook, it was being seen that helped the two main characters move through the stages of grief. Who sees your grief? Who can say it like it is? Who dares to tell you that they see your suffering? Who can really listen to your pain and not be afraid of it? If your answer is "No one," it is time to seek out a therapist or a support group who can accept you for who you are. Therapy was vital for me. I needed someplace to come every week where I didn't have to worry that I was being too intense or overwhelming. I didn't need to assure my therapist that I was okay. She could take all of my grief, even if it was mean and angry and ugly. And, actually, really feeling those mean, angry, and ugly feelings helped me to move fully into other feelings—surprising feelings like joy, happiness, and laughter.

About the Author:
Tracey Cleantis is a marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Valencia and Pasadena, California. She holds a master's degree in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and has studied at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles.

© 2015 by Tracey Cleantis
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