The Gift of Disillusion

I want to talk to you about the gift of disillusion and its ultimate reward: accepting life on life’s terms.

Clinging to illusions starts early. We all want to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and magic.  They soothe and bolster our spirits. Of course, we are loath to relinquish them. Even as adults, choosing fantasy, or what we want to think is true, is far more alluring than reality. Unless something is hitting us upside the head, it’s unlikely we will jump at the chance to add extra upheaval, stress, and angst to an already full life by rushing out to embrace it.

Facing how things are often means riding an emotional roller coaster, but that’s because we aren’t prepared for it.  We are fed a romanticized diet and when reality rears its head we want to escape.  The escape might be into addiction, another person, depression, anger, or anxiety.

I have an old New Yorker cartoon on my waiting room bulletin board that shows a woman sitting on the couch with her husband hanging from a noose. The balloon above her head says: “Happy darling?”  The title of the cartoon is: “We see what we want to see.”  The problem is, sooner or later, our illusions get pulverized by reality.  Most of us respond with disbelief, anger, depression, and anxiety in the face of these revelations, but there’s goodness hidden in all that pain.

How could disillusion be so great when it feels so earth-shattering?  If you believe the truth will set you free (assuming it doesn’t kill you first), you will prefer embracing reality, because illusion ultimately leads to false expectations and misery.  With practice and experience, recognizing illusions becomes easier, and choosing to face things head-on less daunting.  You can even welcome challenges as opportunities to develop tolerance, patience, and self-acceptance.  That doesn’t mean you will gracefully navigate every boulder in your path.  You may kick it, scream at its blocking your way, or try to walk in the opposite direction.  The only thing that matters is using everything as a catalyst for self-compassion. Paradoxically, that’s the way towards greater resilience.  Avoidance, or its opposite: being strong, which often involves denying your true feelings, lead to feeling overwhelmed and self-downing.

Of course, clinging to illusions is addictive.  It’s fantasy land, but like drug addiction, short-term gain ends up causing long-term pain. Unlike addiction, however, I don’t think people consciously choose illusion. We are wired to want what we want when we want it, and when we think we’ve found it why search for evidence that it is a mirage?

There probably isn’t much you can do to prevent some illusions, especially in new situations and with new people; but, you can face disillusionment when it first appears rather than pushing it under the rug and having it come back to take a bigger bite out of you later on. That’s easy to say and hard to do, as facing reality is daunting. However, it can become a practice, like yoga, prayer, or eating breakfast.  You can seek out opportunities to love reality.  Start small.  The bus is late, but you decide it’s OK. Your boss is in a bad mood and you let it roll off your back. The puppy pees on your new rug, you calmly clean it up.  Busses will be late, bosses have their own issues, and puppies aren’t 100% well trained. Don’t you think you would enjoy life more if you could embrace what is rather than rail against it?

It’s one thing with a puppy, and quite another if you find out your spouse has been lying to you, hiding money, or having an affair.  Those are far bigger issues.  Just for a minute, try to imagine you are over the betrayal.  You accept that someone you trusted deeply disappointed you. Doesn’t that require a certain amount of newfound comfort with disillusion?  Isn’t it accepting reality?  Don’t you feel some measure of peace?

Loving what is affords you the benefit of fewer unrealistic expectations, as well as the ability to see with greater clarity.  That doesn’t mean you can never fall in love, but you will understand the lack of perspective is temporary.  The ability to ignore things you don’t like about someone, even a mate, is time limited.  Knowing reality will rear its head and intrude on your fantasy enables you to take disillusion in stride when it appears, rather than be rocked to your core.

How is this all so wonderful?  For one thing, it might decrease the divorce rate.  We are fed a steady diet of romance and “happily ever after” from the time we read Beauty and The Beast, through adulthood.  This sets us up for a slew of unrealistic expectations. While there are plenty of reality based books and movies that could engender more realistic expectations, most of us like to think we’re the exception to the rule.  Our marriage will be better, more loving, more honest, faithful, etc.  What a crock.  We may achieve a more loving liaison, but humans, being the fallible blobs of protoplasm we are, make mistakes.  Some make more, some fewer.  The trick is to know yourself (what you can live with, what you want to avoid), and expect imperfection.

Paradoxically, people who grow up in toxic or dysfunctional families are at greater risk for creating unrealistic expectations because the perennial six year old inside wants to believe in fairy tale endings.  Not to mention the desire to have a perfect life where people treat each other with kindness, patience, and understanding.  I am all for that, but to expect it 100% of the time only sets one up for disillusionment.

The best thing we could do for our relationships is to tell someone, early on, all about our foibles, worst traits, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and weaknesses.  That way, there would be far less room for disappointment and disillusion.   It’s a paradigm shift worth imagining.  Try it on a first date, you’ll be surprised how much more believable your good qualities suddenly become.

In the meantime, welcoming, embracing, and even loving reality strengthens our ability to roll with life’s punches.  At the end of the day, we may not like what is true for us now, but we can handle it without illusions, delusions, and unrealistic expectations.  How empowering is that?

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.