Do You Have a Ghost Life?

Do you ever wonder about your unlived life? Do you ever wonder about the life you might have had? I have a patient, S, who was obsessed with her unlived life, her “ghost life,” as she called it.  She constantly thought about what would have happened if she had married a different man, if she had continued to practice law, if she had moved to Italy after college, and so on. She was full of “What ifs…” “What if I had said no when Jack proposed?” “What if I had insisted on moving to the country?” Looking back on what could have been or should have been was a constant source of angst, a thorn in her side. She was always second guessing herself. If only she had made a different decision, she believed, she might have been happier. She loved her husband and she knew she had a “good life” but she couldn’t help but wonder, “What if….”       I was concerned that the relentless comparison of the life she had to the one she almost had was bordering on obsessive and unhealthy.  It seemed like a particularly unforgiving and self-flagellating strain of self-comparison. Her concern about what she was missing out on was eclipsing everything else. It was FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) on steroids. I did my best to guide S’ attention toward the goods thing in her life. I suggested she keep a gratitude list. I encouraged loving kindness meditation. We explored the fantasies of her unlived life. None of it helped loosen its hold on her. I needed a different approach. I had heard about a book by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, Missing Out, and found it to be illuminating. Rather than letting go of our unlived lives, Phillips encourages us to make peace with them and to learn from them:

“Our fantasy lives are not—or not necessarily—alternatives to, or refuges from those real lives, but an essential part of them….So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for, and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.”

It is through our frustrations, he argues, that we can begin to understand what we truly want. By revealing what we long for and dream about, our unlived lives can bring us closer to what we value most and, ultimately, make the lives we have more satisfying. I gave S a copy of the book too. Instead of endlessly mourning the life she didn’t have, she began to think of her ghost life as a tool to help her figure out what she could do differently in her current life. She had come to therapy to get away from the recurrent fantasies of an unlived life. It made her feel guilty and incomplete. It made her question her choices. She no longer felt this way. She told me, “I realize, my ghost life is just that—a ghost. It’s not here to frighten me or lead me astray. It is just passing by.” I came across a beautiful observation about our unlived lives by author Cheryl Strayed that echoes S’s sentiment:

“I'll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us. There's nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

― Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from...

Make Love Last

Novelty wears off in life and love. Researchers call this process of getting used to things hedonic adaptation. Positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explores how love changes over time. Quoting Raymond Chandler, she captures the changing nature of love perfectly:

"The first kiss is magic. The second is intimate. The third is routine."

No matter how hopelessly (or hopefully) romantic you are, falling in love and staying in love are two different experiences. According to Lyubomirsky’s research, the initial burst of happiness people experience after falling in love abates over time. That doesn’t mean the love is gone. It turns from “passionate love” into “companionate love” which is based on shared beliefs, mutual respect and commitment. In her book The Myth of Happiness, Lyubomirsky suggests a few simple, practical ways to address the pitfalls of hedonic adaptation in relationships. Her insights combine common sense with scientific research.

Appreciation

As we settle into our lives with a partner, day-to-day demands can crowd out expressions of appreciation that were easy and spontaneous at the beginning of the relationship. She suggests writing down things that you appreciate about your partner to slow the “adaptation” process. Another strategy is to imagine life without your partner. The point is not to take your relationship for granted.

Variation

Variety is the key to avoiding stagnation in a relationship. Lyubomirsky suggests learning something new together like a language, taking a dance or cooking class. Routines may be necessary but it’s important to balance them with excitement.

Surprise

Spontaneity makes a difference. Studies show that people are reminded of their attraction to their partner when they see them in an unexpected context — like watching them give a speech if they never have before, or running a marathon for the first time. It reminds them that there is more to the person they brush their teeth next to in the morning.

"The art of love… is largely the art of persistence." ~Albert Ellis

Alexandra Trower

Alexandra Trower is the EVP of Global Communications at The Estée Lauder Companies and leads corporate, social, crisis, philanthropic and Lauder family communications.

Is Lunch Ever Just Lunch?

There is something sacred about dining together. The mutual enjoyment of food, drink and conversation is about sharing an experience. In a romantic context, there is often the promise of a different kind of pleasure to follow. Indeed, the table is for a meeting of the minds and also for love and affection. Dining à deux has symbolic value and meaning beyond what is eaten. Perhaps this is why research shows that sharing meals with an ex-lover sparks significantly more jealousy than meeting with the same person for coffee. The act of breaking bread together is perceived by significant others to involve much more than the physical consumption of calories. The researchers revealed:

We consistently found that meals elicit more jealousy than face-to-face interactions that do not involve eating — such as having coffee. These results are consistent for both men and women.

As the authors conclude, “It’s key to remember that from your spouse’s perspective, it’s not ‘just lunch.'” With this in mind, keep the peace and order a latte.

Not Your Mother’s Manners

It is not unusual to hear manners dismissed as artificial or outdated vestiges of a formal and stuffy past. Some argue that manners constrain self-expression and are no longer relevant in a world that celebrates the uniqueness of an uninhibited individual. Others say that manners are superficial and that respect for another person has to be earned. I couldn’t disagree more. As Ralph Waldo Emerson stated so elegantly:

Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices. If they are superficial, so are the dewdrops which give such a depth to the morning meadow.

Manners are about respect—respect for others, respect for the environment and respect for oneself. They are about choices and a reflection of values. In my mind, this is why manners are so modern. They are essential navigation tools that enable people to exist together with civility and dignity. They govern how we relate to one another and now, perhaps more than ever, this matters. Contrary to what many believe, having good manners doesn’t require a certain upbringing or education. Modern manners are available to everyone. 

Respect for others

Say thank you, give a compliment, send a condolence note, wait patiently for one’s turn, speak without profanity, be on time, send a thank you letter, acknowledge the people around you, open a door for someone, hold the elevator, help an elderly woman cross the street, offer to do an errand for a neighbor, pull out a chair for someone, allow an overwhelmed mother and her three kids to take the taxi you hailed in the rain, stand when another person enters a room, remove your hat, resist the impulse to put someone else down, respect different religions, politics and traditions, and smile… These are little things, the “petty sacrifices,” but they are always well worth it. They shape our lives and how we interact with one another.

Respect for the environment

Taking care of one’s environment is central to good manners. This applies as much to a student’s college dorm room as it does to a company’s and a country’s carbon footprint. Being mindful of our surroundings and appreciating the beauty around us, cleaning up our messes and someone else’s are ways to show our respect for the world we live in. Look up from your device and notice your surroundings. Respect your environment, not because it is the politically correct thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do.

Respect for self

Learning how to take care of oneself is essential for wellbeing and self-respect is at the core of this. Respecting one’s body through exercise, a healthy diet and sleep, respecting one’s mind through self-discipline and hard work, respecting creativity by developing one’s artistic abilities, appreciating talent in others, cultivating long-lasting relationships and friendships, and living a life that reflects one’s values, are gifts to oneself and others. At the heart of respect for others, for the environment and for oneself, is kindness. Kindness always counts and manners keep kindness at the forefront of all interactions.

“Good manners open the closed doors; bad manners close the open doors.” Mehmet Murat Ildan

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Alexandra Trower


Alexandra Trower is the EVP of Global Communications at The Estée Lauder Companies and leads corporate, social, crisis, philanthropic and Lauder family communications.

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