We all have words that trigger us. And for many of my clients, especially those who identify as female, “realistic” is one of them. Often heard in a sentence such as “you have to be realistic about this,” it’s an instant shut down. Think about what happens to you when someone says that to you – or when you say it to yourself. It roughly translates as “you have to stop being naive/childish/a dreamer and be an adult about this.” Except, you don’t.
My reality is not your reality
Inherently “realistic” is not an unpleasant word – it’s the way that it gets used that bothers me so much. That’s because reality, and what is realistic, are pretty subjective. We create our reality from our inner worlds. Inevitably, whatever is in your inner world will affect your thoughts. This will impact what you believe, which will define how you act, which will create your experience. So, while me and you might occupy the same space, with the same things happening in it, the way we experience reality is totally different. To quote one of my favourite philosophers “there is no truth only points of view.” Your truth of a situation is defined by your mindset and mine by mine. And, unfortunately, there are so many ways that we can use this to self-sabotage.
Why do I dislike the word “realistic”?
For many situations in life, what we are told is “reality” is often simply the version of reality that someone else can see – and has decided we should see too. I think the most obvious situation where this is likely to arise is parent to child. For example, if you have a parent whose childhood and early adult life was defined by a lack of money then they might relentlessly teach the child to avoid any financial risk. Here, the word “realistic” is used as a weapon every time you’re thinking of trying to go bigger.
“I want to quit my stable job and do something that makes my heart sing.”
“You need to be realistic about this.”
Sabotage, self-sabotage and shame
The parent in this situation may think they are acting in the adult child’s best interests. Maybe they are trying to keep them safe from a skint reality they endured. But actually what’s happening is the parent is projecting their own experiences and fears onto someone who is not them. The message is “I don’t believe you can do what you want to do” nicely woven in there, alongside “I know what’s best for you.” Which also implies “you’re not capable of thinking for yourself.” And there’s probably an element of subconscious control too – maybe the parent fears having to deal with the consequences of the adult child’s failure by bailing them out so they shut the situation down before it escalates.
Parenting is hard and no one does it perfectly, period. But as an alternative, the parent in this situation could just say, “that’s exciting, how are you going to make that happen?” Without the word “realistic,” the shaming is removed and the other person goes through the process of what is possible themselves – in their reality, not someone else’s.
We are shutting each other down all over the place
It’s not just in family relationships where we use this word against each other, consciously or not. It happens in friendships, work relationships and intimate relationships too. Think for a second about the number of times that you’ve heard it in your life and what that person might really have been saying.
- “You have to be realistic about whether you can do that job.” (“I don’t think you can do that job.”)
- “It’s time to be realistic about what men/women want from you.” (“I’ve been hurt and I’m projecting my experience of dating on to you.”)
- “I think you should be realistic about starting that business.” (“I love you but I’m jealous and maybe a tiny part of me would find it hard if you succeeded at this.”)
- “You have to be realistic about what you’re physically capable of.” (“I wouldn’t be able to do that.”)
Realistic is about other people’s fears
There’s no doubt that other people can provide sage advice and insight when it comes to decisions – but that’s not what’s happening when someone tells you to be “realistic”. It’s a shaming word that is really someone telling you that they know best. It’s disdain and discouragement dressed up in concern – and, often, it’s fear. Even if the person saying it doesn’t recognise what they’re doing, fear is so often where it comes from. It could be a fear of losing you, a fear of you experiencing something that happened to them, a fear of how inadequate they will feel if you succeed, or a fear that you don’t have the resources to cope if you don’t succeed.
Have you internalised this narrative as a form of self-sabotage?
When you hear something like this for long enough, you can start to use the term “be realistic” against yourself. If this is language that you’re very familiar with then look at the times when it pops into your mind. Does it pop up when you’re about to take a risk/feel scared/are trying to grow? It can be useful in this situation to give yourself some alternative language to use instead. So, instead of “I need to be realistic about this” try “I need to be brave about this” or “I need to be positive about this.” See how that feels instead. Literally anything (almost) will do, other than the word realistic.
We can react to this in a range of ways – often, we feel shamed and give up whatever we were thinking of doing. But I would urge caution with that. Next time someone wheels out the phrase, take a pause, give them a smile and respond with something like “thank you, I am.” If their concern shakes you a little then go away and do some more research, collect some more data, boost your confidence and get a clear picture of what you’re actually capable of. And then do it anyway. Only you know what you’re really capable of and what is best for you – and it’s all too easy to minimise that, especially when other people give you the language to do it.
A lot of people out there aren’t being brave with their lives. But you don’t have to listen to those people. It’s likely that their perception of what you can actually achieve in life if you’re always staying small, hidden, not taking risks or being bold.. well, it’s just unrealistic.