We have all been the sold the idea that we can be whatever we dream. But perhaps there comes a time when it is more psychologically healthy to admit that it’s not going to happen, and to accept what is.
When she was a teenager, Vicky Armstrong imagined that by 30 she’d be a best-selling novelist, married to a drop-dead gorgeous actor with four adorable children and living in a beach pad in California. It was only when Vicky, an office manager, saw 40 looming that she started to accept the implausibility of her dreams. ‘I have achieved the sum total of none of these things,’ she says. ‘I’ve never married, don’t have children and my only attempt at writing a children’s book was returned with a confidence-zapping rejection note.’ Now 44, Vicky says she can smile about it. But it was only recently she realised the gulf between her dreams and real life had plagued her throughout her 20s and 30s. ‘A few years ago on New Year’s Eve, I decided my resolution would be to make my dreams more realistic,’ she says. ‘I made it my aim to get a dog and a new flat. ‘Letting go of my hopes was painful, but gradually I began to feel happier. I began to accept myself as I was.’
We live in a culture that bombards us with the message that if you want something badly enough, work at it hard enough, wait long enough and focus on it to the exclusion of just about everything, ultimately your dreams will come true. We love nothing more than stories of extraordinary accomplishments, such as that of 27-year-old Paralympic athlete Monique van der Vorst, who lost the use of her legs as a teenager, but began to regain feeling after a crash in 2010. She can walk again and has become an elite cyclist. And Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling was famously turned down by at least 12 publishers before a small London house took her on. Both of these stories involve people who never gave up. No wonder motivational speakers and self-help books use them as examples.
But is such a philosophy really for everyone? Or does there ever come a time in life when giving up on a dream is a more psychologically healthy thing to do? Some experts think so. ‘Remarkable accomplishments do happen, but they’re not the norm,’ says Katy Park, a cognitive behavioural therapist. ‘But when people think it is the norm, they set themselves unrealistic expectations, and end up with depression and anxiety when they fail to achieve them.’
Alison Lambert, 42, is mother to five-year-old Jack. She became so fixated on having a second child she missed out on her son’s first few years. ‘I came late to motherhood,’ she says. ‘But I desperately wanted my son to have a sibling. As soon as he was six months old we started trying for another baby.’ But she and her husband were diagnosed with secondary infertility, and Alison admits that for the next three years she became obsessed. Eventually, after borrowing money to fund two IVF treatments, her husband said they had to say goodbye to their dream. ‘I realised I’d spent so much time obsessing about another baby it had taken attention away from my career, my husband and even my son,’ she says.
Nicola Phoenix, a psychologist and author of Reclaiming Happiness, says a common problem is that people think the achievement of a goal will make them happy, and they forget to enjoy the journey. ‘People pursue a dream to fill in a gap in their own self-worth,’ she says. The British Medical Journal once said in an editorial that much of life’s pain stems from the gap between people’s unrealistic dreams and reality.
Louise Walker, 32, can identify with this. Since childhood she dreamed of becoming a lawyer. But when she achieved this, she soon realised this wasn’t the same as living the dream. ‘I didn’t like the cut-throat, competitive nature of the industry,’ she says. ‘I persevered for a few years because I felt like a failure if I quit.’ She was signed off work with depression and, after a lot of soul-searching, resigned. Louise is now studying photography, and in her spare time makes greeting cards. ‘I earn a fraction of what I once made, but it was the best thing I ever did,’ she says.
Experts agree it’s important to grieve after a big dream is shelved, but it’s also beneficial to replace it with an ambition that’s achievable and equally meaningful. ‘Rather than try to capture youthful dreams, we should focus instead on reassessing dreams, figuring out which ones to abandon and which ones to revise,’ says Katy Park. No one is suggesting that the route to happiness is to abandon all our dreams. But everything isn’t always possible.
As W. C. Fields once said: ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.’
So do dream and have goals – how else will you get where you want to go? – but keep a healthy balance between your dreams and your reality.
Some names have been changed
Written by Lorna Martin, this article originally appeared in the Daily Mail