At No Fallen Heroes we work to reduce and eliminate veteran suicide. Because suicide among veterans is closely related to mental health, this is one of our points of focus. One of the many facets of this issue include expectations and mental health. When we expect difficulties, we typically prepare for them. When we expect to have an easy time and difficulties arise it is often difficult to change gears and deal with the issues at hand. Sometimes our original expectations are rational and sometimes they are unrealistic. Giving up unrealistic expectations can be the key to good mental health.
How Unrealistic Expectations Affect Mental Health
Everyone has expectations. Starting from when we are very young, we model our expectations after authority figures, parents, and early life experiences. As we grow older and gain more experience in life, we typically change our expectations to match what we know and what we can reasonably expect. However, all too often unrealistic expectations follow us into adult life. Some of these expectations may follow us into the military and then into civilian life. To the extent that our often hidden expectations do not match facts in the real world we misunderstand, become frustrated, and end up having dysfunctional relationships in our lives.
How Recognize When Expectations Are Unrealistic
The most reliable way to recognize when your expectations are unrealistic is when you are continually frustrated, confused, angry, or depressed at the outcome of your efforts in life. You may have wanted to be a professional baseball player all of your life but if you cannot routinely catch a flyball, hit a fastball, or hit a curveball you are not going to succeed at being a baseball star. This example can be applied to being an electrical engineer when your forte is not in math or science but rather in communications and interpersonal relationships. This is a simple example but matching aspirations to your skills or level of formal education is important for success in life.
How to Deal With a Mismatch Between Expectations and Results
If you just left the military and are using your veteran status for help with a formal education, you may well become the electrical engineer you wanted to be but that will not happen until you have finished college or university and gone through a job internship. This sort of situation is pretty clear and easy to figure out. What is not so easy is the sort of expectation that lies hidden in your psyche having been planted there in your youth that you will always be a failure or that people will never like or love you. Very often this sort of dilemma is so ingrained that it takes professional help for a person to recognize what the problem is even those around you can see it clearly. Dealing with this sort of mismatch between expectations and what life throws at you may require professional therapy but it may also just require letting up on yourself, learning how to love yourself, and letting go of deeply held beliefs about your adequacy in life.
Adjusting Expectations for Better Mental Health
In order to realign your expectations with what is achievable and reasonable a sense of perspective is important. You just left the military and will commonly need some time to adjust. You do, or do not, have the experience needed for a given job. There are, or are not, jobs for your skill set where you currently live. The woman you find attractive has a boyfriend or husband. The injuries you incurred in military service will get better with time or will be a limit on your abilities for some time to come. Having an accurate perspective is an important starting point for better mental health.
Be Grateful for What You Have
This is the glass half full instead of the glass half empty approach. Practicing gratitude may take time to learn but simply taking the time to write a list of what you are thankful for is a good place to start. When you achieve something, have a victory in life, no matter how small, take time to recognize the fact and even to have a little celebration. The back side of this is also to see setbacks as opportunities to learn and improve instead of stains on your soul. Ideally one can learn to be grateful for what they learn from their mistakes and how learning from mistakes leads to future success.
Learn to Like Yourself
A common thing in military families is that whoever is “in charge” wants so badly for their kids to succeed that they make a child’s life like going through basic training over and over again. This sort of childhood experience can be so ingrained that the person never sees themself as competent, likable, or a success. The same person will commonly help others to succeed and like themselves. The key in this sort of situation is to start giving the same advice and help to yourself that you give to others so that you learn to like yourself!