Challenging Expectations

By the time we reach 40-something (and that number is probably far younger, it just happens to be my current number), whether we’re aware of it or not, we have established a set of personal expectations. There is a mental outline that shapes the parameters of what we believe we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot accomplish, what we are and are not able to achieve. This outline has been determined in part by our parents, by our teachers during childhood, by our experiences, and by our own determinations.

But, really, who says this outline is set in concrete? Is there actually a solid “thing” in our brains forming an immovable boundary we cannot cross? Of course, there is not one. Still, this outline is as confining as if it were a steel box, secured with a hundred keyless padlocks.

I’ve made huge strides in breaking out of that box. I stepped out of an abusive marriage. I went back to school. Instead of taking a make-do career path, I went for the dream – a doctorate in psychology. But over the past several months there has been a niggling sensation of “something” worming its way around in the corners of my mind. And yesterday the lightbulb went on. I have still been confining myself to that box in yet another way. Well, actually in a couple ways. The other way was challenged last week.

First things first. Let me back-track to last week. Last Tuesday I flew from Atlanta to Chicago for the annual board meeting of the organization I volunteer with, which is based in the Chicago suburbs. I’ve been working with New Hope Outreach for seven years, now starting my eighth. As we had a whirlwind of meetings, including the executive board meeting, I was reminded how much this work is my heart. And it occurred to me – there is nothing really keeping me from moving there once I finish my Associates degree.

The moment that opened my eyes was when someone mentioned it was a 15-minute ride to downtown Chicago on the train. I realized one of the colleges I’m considering transferring to has a campus in Chicago. It is literally as close to them there, as it is to me here. I moved to Atlanta after I married because my husband was from this area and we moved to be near his family. My brother later moved here and is the only family of mine in this area. He is planning to move away from this area within a couple years, back closer to family. My boys are grown – one is getting married. The other is going away to college in another state and will be gone for 3-5 years. My ex lives in another state now. Why do I need to stay here when the work I love is happening in the suburbs of Chicago and I can go to school there just as well as I can here in Atlanta?

The other challenge to expectations was more significant, however. It goes back to the fact that we were not affirmed in our strengths as children, so we did not learn to value them. Also, I always approached school with an attitude of “get it done better and faster.” I was a perfectionist, so anything less than perfect meant I wasn’t good at it. And if I wasn’t doing two years of school in one it wasn’t good enough. I was always in a hurry to get to the finish line for some reason. I had to get done with eighth grade a year early so I didn’t get sent away to boarding school in Brazil (not a punative thing; long story). I had to get done with high school early for some reason I can’t even remember now; I think it was so I could graduate with all my friends who were a year ahead of me, but my dad wouldn’t let me anyway. I had to get done with Bible college early to escape because the place was so abusive. The only way out was to get married, and I had to be done with all but a few classes I could do from a distance because they required students who married to take a year off, and by then I would be far, far away if at all possible.

When I started back to school last year I wasn’t sure if I could take the academic rigors. Would my brain function like it used to, especially post chemo, migraines and all that abuse? Was I ever any good anyway, since who knows how the academics of that weirdo environment I was in “back then” compared to a “real” school? In talking to my academic advisor, he suggested, and I agreed, that at my age, the best plan was to get in, get out, and get into a career, ASAP. I suspect he was verbalizing what he thought my perspective was. But I really didn’t have a perspective other than my previous mode of “do it as fast as possible.” So I unconsciously adopted his, like the good, obedient girl I am.

But I found I was good at the academics. Not only was I still proficient, I found it profoundly satisfying at a level I can’t even describe. One of the hurts of my marriage was that my husband was apparently intimidated by my intelligence and would humiliate me publically if he ever saw evidence of it. So I tried as much as reasonably possible to pack my brain away for 20 years. School has been FABULOUS; you just have no idea.

Over the course of the past week, I’ve also had another thought. In the course of walking out my own situation, I’ve been busily looking at my own feet, working out my own path. But the fact of the matter is, since I work with DV survivors, I’m already making tracks for others to follow. It’s about more than just me. What would I tell others to do? Would I tell them, do the quickest and easiest way? Or would I say, go the way that will most help you grow as a person, will give your children the highest and best example to follow, will give you the most personal satisfaction on the way – as long as you and your family are safe and provided for at the same time?

Yesterday, in the textbook reading for Psychology of Adjustment class, the book asked the question, “Where am I going?” That is the moment the lightbulb flashed. It hit me all at once — the destination is not the goal. The years will pass one way or the other. The best question is, how I will spend them? Will I maximize their value in their passing? Or will I merely tick them off my to-do list on the way by?

This has motivated me to turn a little different direction in my transfer college choice, my class choices, and also in the use of my time “in the meantime.” I’m very excited about it. It’s a little scary at the same time because it means I have to take some chances and dare a little – well, dare a lot. But as the saying goes — nothing ventured, nothing gained. So, we will see how it goes. And I will enjoy the journey more.

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