What exactly is an expectation? I started using this term as a parent, when my daughter was around four. I suspect she will read this, but I'm going to be blatantly honest. She had a knack for meltdowns. I have been known to call her a weapon of mass destruction on more than one occasion. For my own sanity, I became desperate to read any parenting book that could provide insight into her behavior, and frankly, what the heck I could do to survive this phase- aside from sedating her. I came across the "Love and Logic" books, and although I found this method to be excruciating in the beginning, it provided me with relief in the long run. This parenting strategy is about creating choices for your child so they feel they have control, while also instilling consequences (the excruciating part). Basically, if she's melting down about putting her coat on in December, we leave the house with her coat off, and she learns that she is uncomfortable if she doesn't wear the darn thing. Another aspect of this parenting method involves expectations.
What the heck I could do to survive this phase, aside from sedating her...
For instance: as we drive to a restaurant for dinner, I let her know that I expect her to stay seated, order politely, use a napkin (instead of her pants), and if she does this, she will get dessert. I also want her to know that if she doesn't do those things, she will go to bed early. That's an expectation. After years of this, she just asks me, "what are my expectations when we get home?" so she can know if she has chores, or gets to watch her iPad. Establishing these boundaries, make things operate more smoothly. At the end of the day, I'm not disappointed in her behavior, because she met my expectations.
People rarely do what we want them to...
If all interpersonal relationships were this clear cut, the world would be far easier to navigate. Many of my patients spend their time in my office expressing disappointment with a spouse, a sibling, or a friend- describing the many ways in which this person has let them down. I know the feeling. At their best, relationships can still leave us feeling vulnerable and frustrated. People rarely do what we want them to. At least with kids, we can punish them with the naughty chair. Try that with a co-worker! That would involve too much paperwork. We expect to be treated with kindness and respect. We expect chocolate on Valentine's Day. We expect a "happily ever after" at the end of our story. But what if your holiday was spent alone on the couch with Ben & Jerry's? What if your "happily ever after" is still single in your late 30's? These expectations can feel crushing, especially when we compare ourselves to others.
Maybe a good day for her husband, is when he puts the toilet seat down...
So how do we get past these feelings? It's time to adjust your expectations. Let's say a woman is talking to me about her husband. He's insensitive. He never listens. He puts her down. He always drinks beer and watches football. He never buys her anything. I'll ask, "has he ever been sensitive? Given you gifts?" Well, no. Yet she's been married to him for 45 years. She is still expecting him to wake up and be Mr. Sensitive out of a rom-com. Not going to happen. This is a perfect opportunity to adjust her expectations. Maybe a good day for her husband, is when he puts the toilet seat down. If that's the case, she needs to start looking at that gesture as a kindness, or kick the stinker out.
Powerful shame spiral...
What if society has told you that by the age of 35, if you aren't married with kids, own a 4 bedroom home with a goldendoodle as your mascot, you're an epic failure. This is a great opportunity to adjust your expectations. Our "American Dream" that has been spoon fed us since birth, can facilitate a powerful shame spiral. Time to bring in my friend, radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is just what it sounds like. When we are faced with a disappointment or challenging life situations, we can choose to pick at the metaphorical scab over and over, creating renewed distress at every turn, or we can accept things as they are in this very moment. Radically. You can't just snap your fingers and be "over it"- embracing your imperfect and dysfunctional family as enough, but given time... you can diminish the sting through good old fashioned hard work, of the cognitive variety. Counseling is a wonderful way to process these complex feelings. Bouncing jumbled thoughts off a professional can clear out the cobwebs and reflect major ah-ha moments that move this process along more smoothly. Journaling. I have said it before and I will shout it until I'm blue in the face. Journal. Getting your thoughts on paper can be cathartic, while reading them later provides us with the wisdom that we were once lacking. Affirmations. If you're on my mailing list, you receive affirmations from me every week. Radical acceptance affirmations are a bit different:
- Everything is as it should be in this moment.
- All things have led up to the person I am today.
- I accept my family as they are, without exception.
- I am whole and valuable, outside of society norms.
Notice the focus on absolute acceptance. Instead of taking on a futile fight against lifelong patterns or personalities, acceptance allows us to embrace the imperfection and hurt with understanding and control. For people that are especially struggling with this, I encourage them to stick post-it's all over their house with affirmations they have concocted. It is a constant reminder to pull out of that "headspace" that's icky. Expectations are a constant challenge. I expect perfect service at a restaurant, because I was a server. I expect perfect coffee at Starbucks because it costs a fortune. I'm not free of all judgement and irritation because I'm striving to evolve into a more zen-like person every day. I'm a work in progress, like you. As with everything, I ask you to pause. Look inward. Are your expectations hurting you? If so, adjust them. If you can't, embrace radical acceptance. You've got this.