What to Do when Life Doesn’t Go as you Planned…

What happens when your life is beyond your control?

how to calm my anxiety

When life doesn’t go as planned?

When your reality falls short of your fantasy? 

Maybe you’ve always dreamed of a perfect job where you get to travel the world, eat wonderful food, meet wonderful people and do work that you feel passionately about every day.

Or maybe you’ve dreamed of the most wonderful partner to share your life with…one who loves you so deeply that he or she would take a bullet for you, or more simply have breakfast brought to you in bed. Maybe you’ve envisioned their fantastic sense of humor, their charm, their intelligence, their dashingly good looks, their professional success and their easy-to-get-along with nature that makes conflict almost impossible.

Then… reality happens. 

You find a great job, but it’s not quite as you imagined. You get to travel, but maybe not to exotic places and it only allows you a small budget for meals. Maybe it’s work that you like, some of the time, but find boring or unfulfilling other parts of the time.

Maybe you find a wonderful partner, but you don’t walk off into the sunset with them happily ever after. Maybe they lovingly support you most of the time, they show they care about you very deeply, but in some way they don’t match up identically to the fantasy that you’ve created in your mind over the course of your life.

And now here you are in a job you like (but don’t love) and in a relationship that works well, but isn’t matching with the dream of near-perfection that you always had.

What do you do with this?

Most people feel a sense of frustration, loss, grief, or even shame and embarrassment about the gap between the fantasy they created and the reality that they have chosen. Remember that worrying will not change the outcome. They may not even realize that they are dissatisfied because their fantasy and their reality are disparate.

A fantasy is just that: a fantasy. Nothing matches up to a dream identically.

Nothing is perfect. Nothing is pure.

Wonderful jobs always have some drudge work or a boss you don’t like or an environment that isn’t like ideal. Great relationships have hiccups and bumps and sometimes mountains to climb. It’s these imperfections and challenges that help us to grow, even though they often aren’t pleasant.  Learn to let things you cannot control go.

It’s important to remember that crafting fantasies are a normal part of being human and serve us well in many ways. It’s fun to use the creativity of your mind to experience something beyond your current scope of reality. If you’ve ever enjoyed a movie, then you know how much fun it can be to lose yourself in a world that is made up.

However, sometimes the gap between fantasy and reality in our own lives causes painful feelings to emerge.

Here are some tools for moving through this gap with grace (and sometimes stumbling, less than gracefully). It helps to use each tool in the order listed below.

  1. Name the fantasy a fantasy – Before all else, you need to know that you’re comparing your reality to a dream you’ve conjured up. Once you name your fantasy a fantasy, it helps to address your feelings of disconnect between what’s actually happening and what you had imagined.
  2. Lean into vulnerability – We all create imaginary circumstances (have you ever imagined winning the lottery? Of course you have!). There’s no shame in this. However, it can feel vulnerable, uncomfortable or scary to recognize that you’ve been comparing your reality to a dream. If you try to push these feelings away, the pain just remains underneath and it eventually surfaces. How can you honor what you’re feeling without judgment and criticism?
  3. Grieve the loss of the dream – Now that you’ve named it a fantasy and experienced the vulnerability of having feelings about the differences of your fantasy and your real life, it’s time to grieve the loss of the fantasy. The reality that doesn’t match up with your imagined dream is a loss. It’s the end of an adventure that you’ve been on in your mind for some time. Your fantasy deserves respect for having comforted you when you didn’t know what your real circumstances would turn out to be. It filled in the gap of uncertainty and gave you a beautiful goal for which to strive. And now, here you are. There may be some sadness, wistfulness, nostalgia or other feelings that arise as you grieve this ending. It’s important to allow yourself to fully these feelings.
  4. Appreciate what you do have (instead of focusing on what you don’t) – This is the fun part. Sometimes we get so focused on the trees, we can’t see the beauty of the whole forest. Focus on what you can control.  Stop worrying about the little things. The spontaneity of life has created something different from your fantasy and maybe something quite wonderful in its own right. After grieving the loss of what isn’t, you get to celebrate the gains of something that you never could’ve conjured up in your imagination. You get to focus on some of the good stuff that has come along on your journey: the unpredictable learning and the gifts. What can you be grateful for on this path, even when it’s not how you expected it to be?

It may seem that I’m saying “you can’t have it all!” But, I’m actually saying – you can have it all and appreciate your life so much more. “All” may need to be redefined as a chance to be all that you are in imperfect circumstances (because this is reality!).

I have found that learning from the challenge is an “all” worth working for!

rachel shanken mindbodywise anxiety therapy






P.S. Interested in gaining more tools to enhance your self-awareness? Try this free guided meditation or go deeper and use this self-care, self-guided retreat to reduce stress and gain awareness.