You want to have kids but find that you physically cannot, or you decided years ago to forego kids and throw yourself into your career, but now you have regrets, and it’s too late. You were counting on that big promotion or starting your own business, but the company went bankrupt, or you didn’t have the capital to fund your project. You always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but you blew out your knee, and it’s not an option.
We all have goals and dreams that we never reach despite our efforts, through no fault of our own. Some of us have made decisions we wish we could undo, but the opportunity has passed us by. All of us, at some point, have to deal with the natural limitations that come with aging. This is one of life’s challenges—learning to adjust to life’s disappointments, the loss of our dreams.
With loss comes some feeling of grief. What we hoped for and worked towards is, like a death, gone, and we each respond in our own ways. Some grieve for a while and manage to move on; some don’t grieve and march ahead as though nothing happened, only to find those feelings seeping back into their lives later. And some get stuck, steeped in regret about what could have been. They don’t move forward but ruminate about the past, the failure, and cannot enjoy the present or envision a positive future.
The challenge is to adapt to loss. The key to adapting is transforming.
It’s not the dream itself that’s important but what it represents.
Goals and dreams are distilled representations of your deep needs, present priorities, and your core personality. Somewhere below the first several layers of any goal is a deeper motivation, a specific need. Wanting to have a baby, for example, is undoubtedly about being a mother or father or creating your vision of family life, but beneath those needs may be others—a strong desire to be a caretaker or to be able to pass on your wisdom, or even repair your past. The job promotion may be about money but perhaps more importantly about having the license to be creative or feel powerful, just as starting a business may be really about having freedom. Hiking the trail may be about nature or a once-in-a-lifetime experience with friends, but at a deeper level, it is about meeting a new challenge for a personality that thrives on challenge.
Successfully dealing with life’s disappointments or eventual limitations is not just about “moving on” or “making the best of it” but drilling down, discovering what that goal or dream meant, what core of your personality it represented, and then transforming it—carry that need, that core forward in a new way.
If you’re struggling with disappointment or loss, this may be a good time to reflect and figure out what you need to carry forward. If, for example, having a child was about caretaking, consider other ways of bringing that need into your life—having foster children simply being more sensitive to those you interact with? If it’s about being more creative, can you explore other creative outlets? If you feel less restrained and need more freedom, are there ways of bringing this into your life? If it is about challenges, can you create another challenge—downsize and find something less physical but just as challenging or explore a different medium—learning a language or playing an instrument?
Will this new goal or dream erase the disappointment and sense of loss from the past? No. Depending on the size of the wound, twitches of grief will likely remain and ride up and down on what happens as you move forward. Will the new goal be as fulfilling as the one you lost? Probably not, because it is still tinged with old grief, but it will help if you take pride in the new.
Find your core.
Finally, look for the theme of your goals. What is it about you that is essential to being you? It may be about being a curious person, a learner who always needs to learn. Great—this is something you can transform and do for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s about being creative—explore and find new ones. Ditto for challenges—brainstorm experiences that, even if seemingly small, arouse your passion and give you that same dopamine rush.
Take stock of goals, dreams, and disappointments. What do you need to carry forward and transform?