Certainly, the people closest to you want what’s best for you. They want you to be safe, secure, and, if possible, happy. Sometimes they want these things for us even more than we want them for ourselves. This is loving, caring, and compassionate. And it can be a burden that holds us back from our true potential.
After a year of not working due to the difficulties of my bipolar disorder, I abandoned hope of returning to the executive ranks I had belonged to and took a job in human services, supporting people with developmental disabilities. It was challenging, rewarding, and important work. It paid very little. I was back in the workforce and establishing my independence just as I was 40 and back living with my parents. My passion for business and economics became hobbies, stuff I read about, and I lowered my expectations of what I could accomplish. So did the people around me.
I did well in the job, helping a couple of clients manage a mailroom and deliver packages. Daily deliveries enabled me to meet people throughout the company, and an executive in facilities took an interest in me. When he discovered my background, he offered me a demanding job with tremendous potential in the business end of the corporation. Excited and looking forward, I took the offer home.
My parents had seen the worst of my suffering. Like many, they attributed the emergence of my bipolar disorder to the intense stress I faced in sales management. They emotionally supported me as I recovered, and now saw me as stable and healthy, yet vulnerable. To risk my health for a job seemed dangerous to them. In their love, they judged any efforts of mine to expand my potential and dream big dreams unsettling. Safety trumped achievement, and they argued vehemently, and convincingly, against my taking the job. I went to work the next day and turned the offer down. I set aside ambition for security. I accepted the low expectations that society, and those closest to me, have for the mentally ill.
We all too often judge the mentally ill who are managing their lives well as just well enough. They seem so rare, so delicate, and so robbed of their potential by the acceptance of the diminished expectations of both society and those closest to them. Such low expectations follow the severe judgment that the mentally ill are compromised in their ability to undergo the stress required to excel at anything. So often we settle into average, or less than average lives - leaving our true talents untapped. It’s as if one of the keys to wellness is to play it safe and risk nothing. To succeed at mediocrity is accepted as low expectations are set, and met.
Mindfulness meditation can help us to overcome the negative self-judgment that leads us to lower our expectations of our own potential, in accord with the low expectations we face in society. In the mindful practice of recognizing and releasing thoughts, we soon discover how many of our thoughts are thoughts of self-judgment. Investigation into these thoughts reveals that they are mere constructs, not reflections of our true nature, but projections of fears and insecurities that conspire to hold us back. Instead of accepting the burden of false self-judgment, meditation that promotes nonjudgmental awareness, including self-awareness, can help us set aside and get beyond the negative thinking that leads to low expectations and little else. It’s not a question of whether our thoughts are right or wrong. It’s that our thoughts often have no grounding in reality. Severe self-judgment rarely stands up to serious introspection. Quite simply, we are each more capable of happiness than we expect ourselves to be.
Mindfulness meditation can also help us manage the stress we will surely encounter as we put into play plans to reach our potential. Risk and effort are required to succeed at anything, including meditation. We risk the revelation of uncomfortable thoughts as we undertake the hard work of merely accepting ourselves for who we are, not who society insists we be. But only in this acceptance of our worth and our ability can we see what we can truly accomplish. I’m willing to bet, if you are able to set self-judgment aside, that this will be more than most people dream possible for you. In this way, the practice of meditation can facilitate the practice of undertaking a fulfilling, and full, life. However you define that life through whatever choices you care to make, you can overcome the low expectations and poor self-judgment that hold you back. Then you can prove society's expectations of the mentally ill wrong.