“James” is a Billy Joel song from the 70s. It’s the story of childhood friends, one who fulfilled his own dreams and another who tried fulfilling everyone else’s. Has anybody ever told you that you weren’t living up to your potential? (Don’t you just hate that?) There are always areas in our life where we could stand a little improvement, but there is a difference between self-improvement and living up to potential.
Self-improvement is self-driven – we identify an area of improvement within ourselves and set about changing our thoughts and behaviors in order to improve in that area. Our potential is rarely up to us, but rather is told to us by other people. In other words, we are expected to meet somebody else’s expectations.
Very often, there is a mixed message here – one which fuels frustration and depression for many. It starts in childhood, sometimes with comparisons such as why can’t you get good grades like your brother or you should try to be sweet like your sister. The comparisons continue into adolescence and adulthood. So-and-so’s kid is going to school to be a doctor — when are you going to do something with your life? or When I was your age I was already married – when are you going to settle down? Regardless of the comparison, the implication is we are not good enough because we aren’t…well…somebody else. The comparisons frequently come with a confusing and contradictory I love you the way you are…now please change the way you are type of message.
We learn early on to compare ourselves to others and in doing so frequently find we are falling short. We begin to feel less than and dissatisfied, constantly pressuring ourselves to keep doing until we are good enough, then never believing we are good enough. How then can we avoid the trap of perpetual potential? Start by examining motives – yours and those of the people you feel are pressuring you.
You can determine your own motives by asking if the expectation you have put on yourself is truly self-driven and self-realized, or if you are simply trying to please somebody else. If the purpose is rooted in ‘self’, then ask yourself is this something I actually wish for myself, or is it based on my own comparison of myself to somebody else? Keep in mind, it is one thing to respect a particular quality in another person and seek to build that quality within ourselves. However, doing so can become unhealthy when we lose sight of the area of improvement and instead begin a fruitless cycle of attempting to be more like somebody else.
Examining another person’s motives can be tricky, partially because they may not even be aware of them, or may be unwilling to admit their reasons for them. One question worth answering is: is this something they wanted to achieve themselves? People will often project their own unrealized hopes and dreams onto those around them in an effort to vicariously enjoy the experience they themselves missed out on. Also, ask yourself if the other person’s expectation matches your own self-improvement goal.
Sometimes it won’t. When that happens, you may try explaining why that particular goal doesn’t fit into your current plans. But, let’s face it, some people cannot take “no” for an answer, especially if they think they are “helping you” into being a better whatever. In those cases — particularly where the person keeps pressuring and pressing those depression and low self-worth buttons in your brain – you may want to consider ending the relationship. In cases where you are stuck with the person, you might do your best to avoid the subject or quickly change it should they bring the topic up.
The bottom line is, when we try to live up to someone else’s idea of our potential, we will most likely find ourselves feeling inadequate and unfulfilled. Identify your own idea of potential, set your own goals, and then go for them. If somebody else’s expectations match yours, hooray! When they don’t align, try not to sacrifice your own peace of mind by worrying about whether or not you will ever fulfill – in the words of Billy Joel – “…someone else’s dream of who you are.”