Expectations are NOT “supposed” to happen.
I was in the base gym the other day, having just come out of the showers and opening my locker to start getting dressed when I was overcome again by the sadness, the despair, and the darkness. Despite all my efforts and beliefs, despite the goals of my generational upbringing I felt I had largely failed in the world because I have no family to share this with, and no immediate direction or great job lined up. My retirement from the Navy looms in only 15 days, and it was not supposed to be this way.
That is when I realized the trap I had fallen into, a trap that is so common to the military (indeed, to our national culture) that most of us never see it for what it is. We tend to conflate our “expectations” for something that we believe we are owed, something that is supposed to happen.
Being a man who suffers from chronic depression and anxiety, I will never dismiss or downplay the reality of the darkness that I live with. I can’t just turn it off, much as I wish I could. None of us who wrestle with these particular physiologic issue can. Short of God divinely intervening and healing us (which He can, but rarely does), no amount of praying or perspective changing will make the melancholy worry go away.
There is a tool known as “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT) that seeks to help people examine how they think. Incorrect and inappropriate thought processes lead us into a state of heightened emotional turmoil…in other words, we stress ourselves out. CBT is not a cure-all; rather it’s a powerful mental device for reorienting one’s thoughts into healthier lines and, thereby, making the burden of depression and anxiety easier to manage and live with (not to mention also helping lighten the load of the normal hijinks life throws at us all). CBT is something everyone can utilize in order to align their own thought processes to healthier angles, thereby de-stressing much of their lives.
I’m a Roman Catholic. Gay libertarian Roman Catholic, but Roman Catholic. I can’t speak for other religious beliefs, but in Christianity God the Father, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, promised us only two things. Just two: salvation through the blood of Christ and that this world will suck…especially if you’re a Christian. That’s it.
Yet many of us think that what we expect is owed to us. It’s particularly noticeable in military veterans because so much of our experience is wrapped around a very structured promotion system that’s based on merit and seniority. We all gain seniority, and if we work to merit the promotion, it usually comes. We have a very reasonable expectation of it. However, I have seen many shipmates get their propellers fouled out of joint because they didn’t get the promotion they expected when they expected it (I’ve fallen into that trap myself). They were upset they didn’t get something they thought they were supposed to have when, in reality, they only expected it.
Once I realized this as I was rooting through my locker for my street clothes, I felt a very subtle but distinctly subsonic seismic shift in my soul.
There is nothing that is supposed to be happening right now that isn’t actually happening. My out-processing from the Navy is happening. I am applying for an interviewing for new jobs. I am getting ready to move. All of that is happening as it’s supposed to. The rest, however…
Well, no one is ever “supposed” to have a normal, heterosexual family (even straight people don’t always find the right life partner to marry). I wanted that very much and, based on my Gen-X upbringing, expected it. But it was not a “supposed to” thing, only a “wanted” thing.
By simply realizing I fell into trap of conflating my expectations with something I thought I was owed (owed by whom, I’m not actually sure), I set myself up to feel cheated and robbed of something I had a right to, and therefore slid into the helpless anger of a victim. But…I’m not a victim of anything because nothing has been stolen from me that I had a right to possess.
None of this is going the way I expected it to go, and that is an ok, healthy statement. My expectations—indeed, anyone’s expectations—can only be built out of what we observe. I have never met anyone who retired from the military as a single man. Everyone I’ve seen retire had a family. Therefore, based on the only observational evidence I have, my expectations were not unreasonable or even unrealistic. They simply didn’t happen, so I have to chart a unique course.
See the difference?
Expectations that don’t come to pass may sadden one, but they don’t lead one to feeling like the victim of a crime. Conflating expectations with a “supposed to” mentality does leads one to assume a right to something one really has no right to, and therefore leads one to feeling something was stolen…and that increases the stress level significantly.
None of this is going how I expected it to, but I’ve had nothing stolen from me. Just making that mental switch in my thought process has lightened my burden considerably and alleviated much of the stress and anger I was feeling. It hasn’t made anything necessarily easier, and that’s ok. Any kind of major life transition can be difficult, scary, exciting, and uplifting all at once. That’s just life. What we don’t have to do is make it harder on ourselves by tripping into inappropriate ways of thinking.
So, there’s my caution for transitioning servicemembers facing the civilian world…indeed…there’s my caution for anyone facing change and upheaval: take a hard, honest look at your thinking. Are you unhappy and stressing out because things are simply very hard and frightening (which is a legitimate state of affairs to be in)? Or are increasing your own burden by conflating what you expected with something that was supposed to happen? Or maybe (as I realized was my case) both?
This is a scary time; any major change is, but making the mental shift from being angry about what I thought was “supposed to be” to recognizing my expectations (however reasonable they were) simply did not match up to present experience has changed my outlook greatly. It’s not a cure-all, but now I have a much stronger position within my mind and heart to face each day’s hurdles.
Punches and unexpected problems are “supposed to” happen in any major life transition. It’s the nature of the beast. However, we don’t have to make it harder on ourselves by setting ourselves up to fail through inappropriate thought processes!