I think of myself as a goal-oriented, disciplined person. Most of the time I know what I want (at least I think I do). Some of the time I’m intentional and present with my choices. I like routine and can be both dogged and stubborn.
Outcomes have always been important to me. I’ve set my sights on what I want to happen and started trying hard to achieve that desired outcome.
I don’t remember ever being taught that creating certain outcomes is the way to live successfully and happily, but that was a belief around which my choices and behavior were structured. A desired outcome was success, and therefore good. An outcome I didn’t want was failure, and therefore bad.
I didn’t consciously notice for much of my life that trying to create just the right outcome never worked that well for me.
When I came to Maine and learned emotional intelligence, I started thinking about personal power and I finally really looked at how strongly desired outcomes motivated me. I was furious when I first came across the idea of letting go of outcomes. What I heard was invalidation and rejection of my ability to make long-term goals and plans and steadily, a step at a time, work toward them. I also thought I was hearing it was inappropriate to have dreams and desires. How could one navigate through life without caring about outcomes?
It took time, a lot of exposure and a couple of difficult and painful events, but eventually I understood that investment in outcomes was the problematic piece, not needing, desiring or the degree to which we are disciplined and can tolerate delayed gratification.
We do not have complete power in the way things work out because our goals and plans inevitably include others.
By others I mean other people (the job, college or mate we want), whatever our conception of the Divine might be, and influences like the weather, the stock market, the tax return we counted on, the housing market, the weather, our state of health, and a thousand other variables.
Outcomes are as unpredictable as a loose cannon on a rolling deck, yet I based my happiness and sense of worth on them for most of my life.
For the most part I was unhappy, anxious and felt like a failure.
Then, somewhere I read or heard this little phrase: “However it needs to be, it’s okay with me.”
When I first came across it, I felt angry. It was a blatant lie. I was reluctant to think it, let alone say it. On the contrary, I was deeply invested in outcomes.
But it didn’t work well to live that way, and I kept noticing that.
For some time I watched myself using all my energy in the tension of trying to create specific outcomes that eluded me.
In my usual buttheaded fashion, I hung on grimly. If I wasn’t seeing the outcomes I intended and wanted, it was because I didn’t deserve them. Or I didn’t work hard enough. Or I was so broken and stupid nothing would ever work for me. Or the world was against me.
It was much easier to hurt myself and hate myself, both old habits, than consider the possibility that none of us can really control outcomes. It was easier to blame others than change myself.
What we can control – the only place our personal power resides – is what we do with ourselves in terms of our beliefs, choices and behaviors.
Deciding how to think about outcomes is part of our personal power.
I formed a conscious intention of experimenting with letting go of outcomes. One of my very first explorations into that was this blog.
One of the biggest problems with attachment to outcomes for me is that the outcome looms so large it overshadows the hundreds of small pleasures in life, as well as my delight and curiosity in the journey I take through each day. I’m too busy trying to get to an outcome to notice or appreciate anything else. Attachment to outcomes means there’s only one very specific way I can feel successful or happy, and in order for that to happen all the stars must align just right and everyone and everything around me must behave exactly as I want them to. Otherwise I’ll be resentful, depressed, discouraged, hurt, or some other kind of miserable.
Attachment to outcomes is also a relationship killer. Whatever it is that we want our children, parents, spouses, colleagues, bosses and friends to do or be (or not do or be), the fact is they are not pawns on our chess board. They are not paper dolls. They are not (hopefully) ours to control.
If we cannot accept our loved ones (or ourselves, for that matter) for who they are, we will lose them.
Attachment to outcomes comes with a heavy burden of fear and anxiety. As long as an outcome is “good” or “bad’ in our minds, both hope and fear attach to it. We invest energy in trying to avoid certain events and foster others. We try to figure out how to manipulate and influence the situation so it turns out the way we want.
We lose sight of the others around us very quickly. If we have our hearts set on a job, for example, even though we’re not well qualified for it, we do whatever it takes to get hired, never considering someone else might be a better fit. Someone else might be more desperate than we are for the job. The organization might need a specific set of skills and talents we do not possess. Another job opening we’re not yet aware of might be the place we’re most needed and will be most happy.
Attachment to outcomes can make us small and rigid, selfish and resentful.
So what does it look like to let go of outcomes?
Change and the unexpected are no longer fearful, but interesting. We make space for them. We have increased room for others because we’re not trying to control them. We take life less personally. We are confident and clear in our own power.
To let go of outcomes is to let go of distractions. It frees up space and energy to consider our own integrity, expression and needs. If we want to give a gift, we do it without worrying about how it will be received, if it will be reciprocated or how it will be judged. We give because it makes us happy and gives us pleasure to do so.
If we are artists, we create because it gives us joy, because it’s what we were born for. We don’t use our talent as a tool to leverage fame and riches. That doesn’t mean fame and riches won’t come or our art is not worth getting paid for, it just means that’s not an outcome that drives us.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of feeling victimized, resentful and betrayed. We don’t take disappointment personally. Life is not all about us.
Letting go of outcomes makes room for cooperation and collaboration. We see others more clearly, lovingly and respectfully. We’re a more elegant team player. We enjoy working with others without the need for competition or power and control. We look for ways to share and nurture power. We give up the blame and shame game.
Letting go of outcomes means letting go of regrets. We make space instead for all outcomes, whether intended or not, comfortable or uncomfortable. We go forward with our best, most honest and heartfelt effort and have fun, letting the rest take care of itself. We use our time and energy to cultivate curiosity, wonder and gratitude for whatever happens.
Letting go of outcomes starves our anxiety, depression and insomnia. If we can position ourselves in life with confidence, surrender and acceptance, we build resilience and joy.
Let me hasten to say releasing outcomes is hard work. I find, somewhat to my chagrin, that at times I’m invested in my resentment over the way things work out and my sense of betrayal. I don’t want to be soothed, comforted, or challenged to consider my experience from a different perspective. I want to be left alone to suck my thumb and pout, my version of a tantrum. Managing my expectations and attachment to outcomes is a work in progress.
I also do not deprive myself of the pleasure of making and achieving personal goals that have to do with exercise, building skills, playing, relaxing or learning new habits. Those kinds of outcomes are well within my power to pursue.
When I feel frustrated and as though nothing ever works out for me, I’ve developed the habit of saying that phrase aloud to myself: “How ever this needs to be, it’s okay with me.” If it feels like a lie in my mouth, I start poking at the situation and asking myself why I’m attached to a particular outcome. I put my energy into taking a step back and reevaluating the situation until I really am okay with whatever outcome occurs. I summon my curiosity, warm up my gratitude, invite my sense of humor to awaken and go forward.
It’s the difference between rolling out of bed and telling the day how it must be in order for me to be happy or rolling out of bed wondering what the day will bring and choosing to enjoy whatever that is in advance.
It’s the difference between arguing with what is and acceptance.
It’s the difference between feeling disempowered and standing firmly in my own power.
However I need to be, however you need to be, however this day needs to be, it’s okay with me.
My daily crime.
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