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When the Gap Between Our Expectations and Reality Widens…


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October 20, 2023

When the Gap Between Our Expectations and Reality Widens…

It’s been said that one of the things that causes us the most distress in life is the difference between the way we think things should be, and the way things actually are.  For example, we all have expectations of how we think our futures will unfold.  Many of us envision a smooth path forward, with milestones along the way.  But when our life path hits a bump, an unexpected turn, or completely falls off a cliff – we often find ourselves grappling with the loss of this anticipated future.  A serious illness diagnosis can feel a lot like this.  It may have been one of the last things we ever imagined for ourselves.  The new reality of living with illness can be exquisitely painful. 

So how do we adjust to a new normal when the gap between our expectations and reality widens? The answer is – it depends on each individual person, but it may be helpful to learn from others who have faced similar situations.  I remember working with a patient who had spent much of her later years in a debilitated state.  Physically, she was dependent for most of her daily activities, and could barely leave her bed.  Despite this, her mind was sharp and her spirit was bright. I asked her how she had learned to cope with the adversity of her illness.  She responded quite frankly, “No matter where you are in life, you can always be a role model.”  She shared that this sentiment gave her a sense of purpose as she lived with chronic illness.  It provided a touchstone of strength, when times got tough. She knew that by being a role model she mattered to those around her, and that provided her with meaning that kept her going.  

I have shared her story with many patients over the years.  It’s a good reminder that no matter how out of control things feel at times – we always have some agency in the situation.  By focusing on what we can control, rather than what we cannot, can help us cope with the stress of illness.  While we don’t always get to choose what happens to us in life, we can choose how we will respond.  Self-determination offers us power, and I believe, within that power there is hope.