If you’re treated a certain way you become a certain kind of person. If certain things are described to you as being real they’re real for you whether they’re real or not. James Baldwin
For years I have been fighting. Against myself.
I have lived with a perpetual, nearly constant battle with expectations. For me, expectations are a set of beliefs of what I should be doing or accomplishing with my work, my parenting, my marriage and my creative life. At times, the expectations have driven me to ignore my health, my relationships and even my values. If I don’t live up to my (self-imposed and admittedly arbitrary) expectations, I heap judgment and shame on myself.
But lately I have been quieting the expectations. Part of it is age: I don’t care to invest energy in worrying about unhelpful expectations anymore. I have also had some helpful conversations with my therapist and my wife. In part, I have learned a few ideas about how to be more realistic and kind to myself.
Expectations. We all have them, and other people have expectations of us. Expectations can be healthy: like being consistent, working a job so that we pay our bills, being present with our relationships or our family, and fulfilling our responsibility when we promise something.
Expek-tation: a strong belief that something will happen in the future.
But expectations can have a dark side. Expectations can be like reverse anxiety: Anxiety is a preoccupation with what will happen in the future, and expectations are a prediction of what will (or ‘needs to’) happen in the future. Chronic anxiety can effect our mental well-being, sleep, overall outlook and life-satisfaction. Chronic expectations can also effect our well-being by:
- Adopting perfectionism and a belief that we need to do things the right way without mistakces
- Expecting others to live according to our rules or standards
- Judgment of ourselves and others
- Anger ranging from low level frustration to simmering to outright rage
- Ingratitude for other’s (and our own) efforts that do not make the mark but still represent improvement
- Ignorance of the fact that we cannot do our best at every task, every project, every day. Pro athletes understand the importance of cycles where they do not give their all so that they do not burn out or injur themselves. Seasons of less effort create the energy for them to later give their all.
Expectations carry a hidden emotional cost when combined with judgment. Let’s name it: often we are judged by how well we live up to other people’s expectations and heck, even our own expectations. Judgment erodes our self confidence, our energy to improve ourselves and our outlook.
Self-criticism leads to negative thought patterns, self-doubt, and anxiety, which in turn can wreak havoc on the heart and the immune system, and prevent us from leading the lives that we truly deserve. Dr. Cynthia Thaik
Sometimes our expectations can be defined by our past successes or failures: trying to live up or live out a past that we cannot shake. We cannot change the past but we can learn to let go of heavy expectations. Learning to be more in the present, realistic, self-compassionate and open can change our mental health and will make us more creative.
Breaking away from expectations
Accept that your thoughts can be at times unfriendly, negative and unhelpful. It’s like this for everyone. Unfriendly thoughts are and will always be present even when you are making important changes. Fighting your mind will just entrench negative thoughts, anxiety, and expectations that you should/ought/must change. Accepting your thoughts with an attitude of self-kindness will teach you to focus your energy on taking meaningful action.
- One of the realities of recovery from substance use, depression and anxiety is that our minds can get down on us. This can set us up because we feel that we ‘should’ be further along, we ‘ought’ to be doing better, we ‘must’ stop thinking like this. I am learning that instead of adding additional pressure by expecting my mind to go along with the changes I am making, part of my mind will always resist what I am trying to do. This might be the inner protector, or the inner change-resistor. Whatever it is, it will always chatter. But the chatter does not mean that you are not making real progress. Remind yourself that being aware of the chatter is huge progress from just going along with it, or reacting to it in frustration.
Commit to the important values and goals that you have. Take time to consider your most important values. Using a values exercise like this one by Dr. Russ Harris can help to identify your top values. The reason why values are so important is that they help you to make choices on where to focus your attention, and effort. For more on values, see #3.
- Commitment is not about perfection, or making a marriage-like commitment to a value. Instead, think of commitment more like having companions with you s you move forward with your life. Your values are more like companions as you try to create a more meaningful life, the life that you want more of.
Take meaningful action. Planning to take action, thinking about it, wishing things will be better, or waiting until the right time will just keep you in the stuck zone. I know from personal experience what it is like to be here. It is comfortable, but we make little progress. When you identify your values, what you do is create an action plan where you don’t have to wait until you achieve a specific goal to feel satisfied. Identifying your values will help to get you unstuck.
- For example, take the value of being creative. A simple action to help you live out your value of being more creative could be to go for a walk during your coffee and take some photos. The next day you can take more photos, walk to a different area or just observe your surroundings. You can also bring a friend and you then are acting on the value of being connected. Often we can get caught up with pressure to achieve our goals. But it is our values, not our goals, that make you and I feel that we are living a meaningful life.
For me, this is a helpful process. My mind frequently can can get off track. I am learning that when it happens, rather than being hard on myself, it is a reminder to be kind with myself, thank my mind for the information and focus back on taking meaningful action.
Expectations can make you and I fixate on what we think we want. Often we miss the important things when we live in pursuit of only what we want. When we learn to accept, commit and take meaningful action we will become more open and find more of what we need.
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes will you might find you get what you need. The Rolling Stones
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Keep it Real
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