Finding a backup purpose for someone

I’m a recovering control freak. I’ve long been prone to getting ideas in my head about what “should” happen, and then ignoring all evidence to the contrary. I habitually refuse to let go of my vision for the role a person or thing should play in my life, which makes it hard to get over situations where that vision is never realized.

This year, I’ve mostly learned to stop clinging to ideas that are no longer serving me. A few different books helped with this: 1) Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, 2) Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass, and 3) Gabrielle Bernstein’s The Universe Has Your Back. Through these and other books, I’ve learned that my judgment of a particular situation has no relationship to the reality of that situation. In other words, just because I get the idea in my head that some guy or some job is perfect for me doesn’t mean it’s true, and holding onto that idea serves no purpose other than to hurt me. When we argue with reality, we lose.

Relatedly, I find that when I’m trying to manipulate things so they’ll go the way I believe I want them to, the universe can sense it, and I rarely get the thing I desire. But when I sit back and trust that things will work out, they generally do — not least of all because I haven’t committed to a specific vision for what “working out” looks like, so it can take a lot of forms. I call this approach “feeling hopeful, but not in any particular direction.”

One way to let go of your ideas about what should happen is to find a backup purpose for the person or thing you thought was going to serve X role in your life. The “dream job” that turned out to be a nightmare? It was an opportunity to figure out what kinds of workplaces and personality types are and are not a professional fit for you. The guy you dated after your abusive ex who turned out to be undependable? He was there to piss you off repeatedly for five months so you could relearn how to assert yourself. The hour you wasted in line for standby theater tickets that never materialized? Without it, you wouldn’t have heard the exact audiobook passage you needed to hear on that day. If you carefully examine every situation where the outcome was not what you’d initially hoped it would be, you’ll find that basically everyone and everything that comes through your life is an opportunity to learn something new about yourself or the world.

In his book The Nerdist Way, Chris Hardwick talks about using someone you want to have sex with as motivation for self-improvement and goal achievement — as in, tell yourself, “After I write 100 pages, So-and-so will sleep with me,” and pretend it’s true. I think a better path is to figure out what you admire about a certain person and use that to guide your improvement. If they’re adventurous, what can you add to your life to make things feel newer and more exciting? If they’re constantly ideating and executing on creative projects, how can you become more like that? If they’re knowledgeable about topics of interest to you, what’s the best way for you to learn more? If they’re hot but lack other positive qualities and you really just want to hit it and quit it, what pilates studio do they go to?

In addition to finding a backup purpose for people and things in my life, I’ve begun mentally reframing alleged disappointments as narrowly avoided disasters. Sure, there’s no way to know for certain that this is true, but there’s also no way to know that it’s not true. As Byron Katie has said, “When you lose something, you’ve been spared.” I’m continually working at developing the kind of faith where, if something is taken from me, I know immediately that I no longer want it.

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