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When Happy Fantasy Meets Hard Reality

How unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune may be depressing your clients

Aspirations that are far removed from expectations are depressing because they take away our sense of personal control.

Mike, 24, smiled.

“Well, to be honest, I see myself as a rock star. Or maybe a movie actor. You know, in major action movies, that kind of thing..”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this kind of quixotic sense of the future, unfettered by practicality, realism, or readiness to work for it, in a client.

Maybe I’m sounding negative?

Well, far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade! Actually, I truly feel that people should be free to pursue their dreams and aspirations. Of course they should! As long as they are actually pursuing them.

But as with most things, balance is needed. Greed is very easily encouraged in human beings. And I would argue that it isn’t the same as aspiration.

We can tell greed from aspiration, because greed doesn’t like to wait or work. Greed doesn’t encourage us to contribute or to support the best interests of others.

“Greed is good!” said the Wall Street baddie Gordon Gekko. Well, I would argue not always.

Greed is cunning and, if given the slightest encouragement, can sink its hooks into us and manifest in different ways. We can become greedy for money – that one’s well recognized – or attention. We can be greedy with desire to be seen as moral (or amoral), or even to be seen as not caring about money. And so it goes on. Greed hides in tiny dark corners of us, often while posturing as its opposite.

If greed were a clever demon, it might even have produced the current taboo against talking judgmentally about greed. After all, taboos against criticism are a great way of ducking and dodging responsibility. “We ‘shouldn’t’ really call people greedy.” Clever, eh?

Anyway, I wasn’t about to suggest Mike was suffering from greed! Partly because of the taboo just mentioned, but also because he was on super alert for any perceived slight or criticism, so therapy would have stalled right there. What rapport we had would have evaporated like mist in the Sun.

But certainly Mike’s desire for universal praise was causing him problems. After all, if you consider yourself to be basically a (rock) god, it can be tiresome to walk among mere mortals.

Wanting without working

We all know, or at least we should know, that fame, money, and universal adulation (if such a thing were possible or even genuinely desirable) are best produced as side effects of our endeavours rather than pursued as goals in their own right.

Many of us, me included, have sometimes dreamed of fame, riches, perhaps even the words we might use during an award acceptance speech to display how simultaneously amazing yet humble we are.

I have, I admit, occasionally had such misty-eyed fantasies while, say, washing the dishes or waiting in line to buy cat food as just another face in the crowd. Usually the contemptuous glance from the cashier because I’m staring into empty space is enough to bring me back to myself!

These kinds of fantasies may not be that uncommon and may not cause too much harm in and of themselves. They may even be a comfort, a source of real aspiration, or simply idle entertainment.

But overwhelmingly seeking fame purely for fame’s sake has a dark side.

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I recall reading a Sufi analogy that if the Sun is aspiration for truth and our shadows are our worldly success, then when we aim for the illumination of the Sun our shadows will follow us, but will not be our primary concern.

If instead we try to follow our shadows, we can never truly catch them. Certainly they won’t illuminate us.

Yet research suggests that more and more people are focusing on trying to catch their shadows while forsaking the Sun – and it may be hurting them.

Shooting for the moon without a rocket

A 2020 report from Morning Consult shows that aspirations to be famous are on the rise: 23% of Gen Z adults say being famous is important to them, versus 15% for millennials and only 8% for Gen X.1

So what’s behind this dramatic trend?

Well, a full exploration of this question is beyond the scope of this piece! But I was interested to see a UCLA report that laid at least part of the blame on TV.2

The study, by Yalda T. Uhls and Dr Patricia Greenfield, looked at 16 values communicated in tween (age 9 to 11) TV shows from 1967 through to 2007. Participants watched the shows, and were asked to rank those values by the importance they were given.

Every year up to 2007, fame ranked near the bottom of the list. Yet in 2007, it skyrocketed to number 1. Other individualistic values, such as financial success and achievement, also rose in importance over the decades. Meanwhile, community feeling, which had previously tended to rank at 1 or 2, dropped right down to number 11.

So it appears that youth TV is increasingly reinforcing the value of fame at the expense of more community-focused pursuits – encouraging young people to chase their shadows, rather than aiming for the Sun.

The authors of the report suggest that the proliferation of reality TV and increased opportunities to gather ‘followers’ and post status updates on social media may be exacerbating this apparent obsession with fame.

Now the interesting question I think is: How has this new cultural desire to be famous for fame’s sake affected the minds of young people?

Younger people may be more inclined to want huge success, adulation, and riches, but not necessarily focus on the process of acquiring these adornments. Intuition would suggest that this could be dangerous for mental health. I can, after all, more ably control what I do and how hard I work than whether other people give me approval or attention.

And sure enough, research published in 2015 supports this position, relating patterns in student depression to the widening divide between aspiration and expectation.

More positive and yet more depressed

The paper, entitled When Aspirations Exceed Expectations: Quixotic Hope Increases Depression among Students, found an apparent paradox in modern schooling: high-school and college students are simultaneously more positive about the future yet more depressed than ever.3

But the researchers suggest that this may not be a paradox at all. In fact, the two states may be causally linked. And as the title of the study suggests, it’s all about the relationship between aspiration and expectation.

Those students who aspired to higher grades than they actually expected to achieve were more likely to be depressed at both the beginning and the end of the academic year.

Similarly, students who aspired to attain a certain level of education – such as being able to attend college or attain their preferred degree – but didn’t actually expect to attain these aspirations were more depressed five years later!

Not surprisingly, for students who didn’t care so much about their future academic attainment (or lack thereof), the expectation of not doing well didn’t predict depression.

The research suggests – and I think this aligns with common sense – that when a student’s aspiration falls a long way off from their expectation, they are at greater risk of becoming depressed. This might seem obvious, but it has important ramifications.

A gap between aspirations and expectations isn’t, of course, the only cause of depression, but it may be a cause. If this is true, it tells us something really important about both aspiration and expectation. That happiness, in part, comes down to the extent to which we feel life has turned out as we had previously felt it should. And there’s something else.

Where’s my autonomy and control?

Mike had no musical ability, no friends in bands, no interest in learning to sing or act. He aspired to being – as he seemed to feel was his due – universally recognized and adored. And yet, in his darker moments, he felt depressed and powerless. He’d flitted between jobs like a bee with a fear of commitment to flowers.

When I asked why he hadn’t been able to find a job that would stick, his face darkened. “I had to take so much crap from everyone!” he told me angrily.

So he quit, and quit, and quit. Soon quitting became a habit. Not that he put it like that.

“You know, Mark, sometimes I feel I will never get my dreams. Crazy, eh?”

I found his phrasing curious. He talked in terms of “getting” his dreams, not fulfilling them or attaining them. The consumerist society can shape our mindsets to see everything in terms of what we ‘get’ or are ‘owed’.

It can be useful to discover your client’s aspirations, how they would like their life to be, and see how well that correlates with their true expectations.

  • What would your client really like their life to be like?
  • How do they expect to attain a life like that?

If we (not just our clients!) are not careful, daydream and fantasy will insidiously replace intention and action.

Bit by bit, like slowly drying concrete encasing the soul, the desire to be adored, universally recognized, and admired can come to entirely usurp our aspirational drives to do the best job we possibly can for its own sake.

Bit by bit, like slowly drying concrete encasing the soul, the desire to be adored, universally recognized, and admired can come to entirely usurp our aspirational drives to do the best job we possibly can for its own sake.Click To Tweet

So it can certainly be useful to discuss with clients what would actually need to happen for their dreams to actualize.

A weak link in the chain of events

I recall one client who had what some might call ‘wild’ ambitions, untroubled by any obvious aptitude or practical intention!

Using hypnosis, I helped him inhabit his future desired goal, encouraging him to fully experience his desired achievements in the future. From this future, I suggested he look back at all the steps he had taken in order to reach his ‘current’ worldwide success. I then asked him to tell me the steps he’d taken.

He replied slowly, deep in trance. “The first step was when I was walking down the street and I was discovered by a famous film director and they said they wanted me in their movie. I was cast in the main role…”

He was silent for a while and then added another ‘step’ to his success.

“After that film, offers flooded in. But then I won the lottery,” he told me, beaming. “I was able to produce all the movies I wanted and have total artistic control.”

Now, we could argue, I think, that those weren’t really steps under his control!

We did eventually discuss steps he could actually take to further his aspirations, and acknowledged that once he had a blueprint for action (rather than simply a fantasy of events happening beyond his control), he would be in a better place to actually move forward in life.

Visualize the steps, not just the outcome

Interestingly, it has been found that just visualizing our goals, without thinking about the actual steps we can actively take to get there, has been found to make us less likely to achieve those goals – even when those goals are quite unambitious!4

There seems to be something demotivating about fantasizing about the end result of an ambition. Conversely, visualizing ourselves taking realistic steps towards a goal makes it more likely we will actually work towards and attain that goal. Seeing ourselves taking positive steps from a third-person position seems to increase motivation to act.5

Aspirations that are far removed from expectations are depressing because they take away our sense of personal control – and a sense of diminished control is inherently depressing.

When our aspirations match up with our expectations, on the other hand, they remain connected to a sense of personal autonomy, which is empowering and naturally antidepressant.

We, as a culture, I think need to be careful what messages we impart on our young.

Do we bombard them with individualistic ideals of winner-takes-all? Or do we foster a sense of contribution and collective community (both of which have been found to be vital for good mental health)6?

Do we teach them that respect and adulation can be attained without effort or responsibility? Or do we help them build the capacity to plan and work hard towards their goals?

Perhaps this is what should come first.

Aspiration without perspiration

As the old saying has it, “Don’t have a wishbone where your backbone should be!”

The authors of the When Aspirations Exceed Expectations study said something similar:

“These findings highlight the danger of teaching students to aspire higher without also investing time and money to ensure that students can reasonably expect to achieve their educational goals.”

Could it be that in many schools, we teach kids to dream big, aim high, and shoot for the stars… but focus less on teaching them to develop the resources they need to plan effectively and work towards their goals?

When we use vague, abstract phrases like “change the world” (with the implication that’s for the better!), “be all you can be”, and “become successful”, we may be inculcating desire without aptitude.

How can we change the world, and why do we assume that we are the ones to do it? What does “being a success” mean? Just getting what you want? Or helping others live better?

Adolescent depression and suicide has skyrocketed in recent years.7 And again, I’m not suggesting desire to be famous or adored for its own sake is the only factor in the sharp rise in depression, but it certainly may be one factor. It is depressing to realize, as you progress through life, that adulation doesn’t come easily at all.

The phrase “be careful what you wish for” has become so overused that it’s easy to forget what it really means. And yet all we have to do is flip open a magazine to find images of empty, depressed, even destroyed celebrities who seem to have it all but feel they have less than nothing, because they never really could catch up to their shadows.

Having a creative vision and following it artistically because you want to serve it, and foster it, and ‘bring it into the light of the Sun’; learning how you might help and be helped by your community; and thinking less of any ripple effects of approval or money that might come to you as a result – this is what makes for more genuinely fulfilling lives.

A big house by the sea

Aspirations need to be aligned to a sense of self-efficacy. We need to work towards goals for their own sake, as opposed to wanting to be famous but not really knowing why.

We can ask our clients (and ourselves) to what extent their aspirations are, if at all, removed from their expectations.

“I would love a big house by the sea!” might prompt the questions “Where would that be? How could you attain that and what might be the steps towards that? Do you expect to get that? Is that an aspiration, an expectation, or both?”

Next, we can ask how much self-efficacy they have in regard to moving towards their goal. What kind of actions might that goal be a side effect of?

To what extent can your client work towards turning their aspirations into expectations and then realities? Really help them think about what is and isn’t under their control.

We can learn so much by delving into people’s aspirations and expectations. How wide is the gap between aspiration and expectation?

Minding the gap

For your client, the takeaways from your work on aspirations and expectations should be:

  • Work out how big the gap is between your aspirations and your expectations, and consider whether the size of the gap may have been depressing you.
  • Disentangle your aspirations from your expectations.
  • Work to increase your self-efficacy so that you can bring your aspirations and expectations closer together.
  • Drop the parts of your aspirations that are beyond your control, such as what others will think of you, how they will react to your success, or even what you will ‘get’ beyond the satisfaction of doing your best work.

Taking pride in work for its own sake, doing the best job we can without demanding praise or adulation or other kinds of approval (while still appreciating some when we get it!) takes us closer to real fulfilment. Serving a bigger cause and the community and thinking of ‘we’ at least as much as ‘me’ all helps counterbalance the feverish greed to become famous for the sake of fame alone.

I’ve often found that things have gone better for me when I’ve been focused on providing the best service I can rather than on just seeking success as an end in itself. The power of not wanting too much is certainly, I think, underappreciated in our culture.

So, what became of Mike?

He became, bit by bit, less depressed and more focused on finding intrinsically rewarding work. The last I heard, eight or nine years after he came to see me, he was working for himself as a picture framer and doing quite well.

Maybe, whatever it might seem to the world, he is following his own path towards the Sun.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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