All choices affect our lives, and there are many different reactions people can have to unfulfilled expectations. Below, Dr. Charles Swenson, an expert in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), discusses the ways in which people deal with unfulfilled expectations.
Turning points in life aren’t all the same.
“There are external changes that take place in our lives, such as a move, a loss, anything that would cause a change. Even winning the lottery would be an external turning point,” Swenson says. “What I’m talking about here is the internal turning points that take place when we reach the conclusion that something in our life doesn’t feel right anymore.”
Swenson described our lives as human beings as being sort of a “tunnel” created by the choices we make in our lives.
“You choose a person, you choose a job, you choose a house, and one choice leads to another as you gradually define a trajectory and find yourself living with those choices, as if you were moving through a tunnel,” Swenson says.
It’s when the tunnel begins to narrow due to external or unexpected influences, outside pressures, or unforeseen events, says Swenson, that a person is often faced with a sense of “mismatch,” or a realization that he or she is no longer at ease within the confines of the tunnel.
“Even if someone is performing well within that tunnel, getting lots of outside encouragement and support, oftentimes the person finds that the choices they have made have led them to an uncomfortable place, and they need to find a way to deal with it.”
A common complaint of people dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a sense of separation from the circumstances in their lives. In fact, the ninth symptom of BPD listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV is “feeling cut off from oneself or observing oneself from outside the body.”
Swenson says he sees people dealing with this mismatch, this sense of unfulfilled expectation, in three ways: explosive, implosive, and catalyst.
The mismatch can lead to “explosions” which, Swenson points out, is a way to get out of the situation, but it can be a way that is destructive to self and to others. As an example, he described a couple in a long marriage that looks fine on the outside, but with one spouse unhappy yet performing well within the marriage for some time. If this person deals with the mismatch in an explosive manner, he or she will simply get up and leave the marriage, escaping the situation and forging a new trajectory.
Someone who finds themselves in a place of mismatch who does not have an explosive personality might deal with the discomfort in an implosive manner. An implosion is anything that creates a distracting “side tunnel” that allows the person to keep one foot in the tunnel and have one foot out that acts almost as a mini-vacation from the underlying issue of unfulfilled expectations.
An implosion might manifest as the person deals with the discomfort by self-medicating with substance abuse, developing severe depression and/or anxiety, or even by, as in the example of the unhappy spouse, fostering an ongoing extramarital affair. Depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse are disorders that often co-occur with Borderline Personality Disorder.
This response uses the discomfort of the unfulfilled expectations as a catalyst for a turning point.
“This person will take stock of the situation, make an effort to explore options,” says Swenson. “They’ll figure out ways to somehow widen the tunnel, ease the constriction of the tunnel.”
Pinpointing what choices led to the constriction in the first place is imperative. Swenson describes a patient of his who, though he was in a successful career and, on paper, looked fulfilled, was feeling the constrictions of a narrowing tunnel. Through sessions with Swenson just talking and exploring his feelings about his life choices and subsequent experiences, he realized the disconnect lay in the fact that, to be truly happy and feel at one with himself, he needed a job that would allow him to work outdoors.
If you find yourself relating to this feeling of mismatch, this sense of feeling uncomfortable or out of place in your current “tunnel,” a Borderline Personality Disorder treatment center can offer group and individual therapy to help you pinpoint your unfulfilled expectations and get back on track.