Are we unhappy because we have a lot of demands?

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  • Published 23.03.14

No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.

— The Buddha

Something that the Buddha said 2,500 years ago is so relevant even today. In the chaotic lives we lead, what we need most is to be saved from ourselves. There’s a plethora of books, movies, talk shows and newspaper columns focusing on things which would make us happy, healthy. We now have more options to ‘do’ things to be happy, more ways to ‘mind’ our thoughts to be successful, more diet options than we can explore in a lifetime. In fact, we are being for spoilt for choices. The same choices which are supposed to empower us to choose better and give us freedom, unfortunately, paralyse us. We postpone taking a decision and then often never make it. We know perhaps what would make us happy and what is good for us, but we won’t do it, or push it back for another day.

In his ground-breaking book The Paradox of Choices, American psychologist Barry Schwartz says how with more choices we have actually more reasons to doubt the efficacy of a single choice. A part of us always goes back to the other choices, other situations that did not happen. ‘Things could have been better’ becomes our mantra. We regret, and this regret takes away the happiness we get from the choices we make. Why is it so? Why can’t we be happy with our life? Is it possible that we demand too much from life, from ourselves?

When we make a choice, we constantly compare the outcome with the ‘ideal’ outcome that we imagined. Not only does it stop us from fully experiencing our life, it also creates ‘had I done that’ regret. We are almost hypnotising ourselves to believe that we are not happy because things didn’t go as planned because we made poorer choices. We are constantly synthesising unhappiness inside us and what was once a gentle expectation has now become demand.

One of the pioneers of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, Prof Albert Ellis distinguished between demands and expectations. A demand is that which we naturally express as ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘have to’.We feel devastated, awful when demands are not met. And we overlook the other factors involved over which we have no control. We take it as a law that demands need to be fulfilled ‘by any means’. On the contrary when we ‘expect’ something, we feel disappointed if it’s not met. It is easier to let go of the expectation and move on.

Distinguish between your demands and your expectations: Unless you are already enlightened, don’t try to convince yourself that you do not have expectations. It’s human to expect, and then occasionally be let down. However if this wreaks havoc on your mind and you cannot move on, then it’s not an expectation anymore. It has become a demand.

Challenge your demand: Try to counter all your ‘must/should/have to’, especially when they are causing disturbances within you. Make room for the ‘if it does not happen’ possibility. It might seem difficult, so be patient with yourself and keep challenging your demands.

Practice acceptance: Choose to accept yourself as you are. You do not have to prove or establish your self-worth by ‘doing’, ‘achieving’ or being ‘approved’. Train yourself for ‘Unconditional Other Acceptance’. Whatever other people do and however abominably they act, you can always accept them. This does not mean you should not protest when it’s necessary. Accept the sinner, not their sins. Try to acknowledge that you can tolerate what you don’t like. You can look beyond the inconvenience of today and perhaps understand that your desires are not what you need, just what you want.

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches

Difference between demand and expectation

Demand: I must succeed no matter what. I can’t even stand the thought of failure.

Expectation: I want to succeed, and I put my best foot forward. If I fail it will be disappointing, but I will try harder.

Demand: Everybody should always respect me. I cannot function when even one person shows disrespect.

Expectation: I expect others to respect me, and it’s disturbing when they do not. But I have no control over others; I can do whatever is doable for me and focus on my activities.

Demand: My daughter should get maximum marks always, no matter what. I feel horrible as a mother if she does not.

Expectation: I wish for my daughter to get excellent marks. It will be disappointing if she doesn’t but she can try harder next time. Anyway, she is an excellent painter and a very well-behaved kid.

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