My last post talked about expectations and how they differ from rules. In this post I want to look at a different aspect of expectations. While expectations of ourselves and of others are important, there is of course like all things, a flip side. There are a couple of issues that commonly arise with having expectations. One is confusing expectations with control. The other is understanding when we may need to reconsider and possibly revise our expectations.
Expectations are just that…how we expect others to act. They do not control how others will actually act. No matter how much structure we create, no matter what consequences for action we implement, others still have the option of accepting the consequences and making their own choices. Don’t get me wrong, if those choices impact you negatively, that’s a problem. You will have to make decisions for yourself about being connected to someone that makes choices knowing they are hurting you. But the fact remains, you can’t control them no matter how much you’d like to.
Besides looking at how others do or don’t meet our expectations it is just as important to look at the expectations we have. Sometimes we have expectations that are so ingrained that we don’t ever consider if they are reasonable or not. Expectations come from many places including family patterns and society at large. Think about some expectations from your family. Examples might be that you’ll marry someone of the same religion or only a college graduate or that you will have children or you will become a doctor or lawyer. Those are obvious ones. Sometimes they are less obvious and unspoken….just understood. Maybe it is expected that you’ll live near where the rest of the family is. Certain relationship dynamics are often unspoken…it isn’t okay to argue or a man’s job takes priority. Whatever they are we have those expectations, sometimes without recognizing them.
It can be useful to look at expectations in two ways. Some expectations about about outcomes and some are about process. Here is what I mean by that. An outcome expectation might be that you expect your child to be happy and financially self-sufficient. A process expectation might be the expectations that your child will do well in high school, go to college…maybe a private school instead of a state college…and then get a white collar job in a large corporation assuring happiness and financial independence.
In therapy I spend a lot of time encouraging people to have expectations and to set boundaries around them. In large part people treat us like we expect to be treated. If we don’t expect much we attract people that treat us poorly because we don’t expect anything different. But sometimes the work we do in session is different. Sometimes it is about examining expectations to see if they are ones the person should continue to have.
There are a variety areas we explore to make these decisions. One is to articulate the expectations and then discuss where those expectations came from. Identifying that can often lead to other, less obvious expectations. For instance, if going to college comes from an expectation in your family of origin, is it okay to deviate from that? If not, is it an expectation in your family that you don’t deviate from family expectations even if you don’t agree or fit the mold? If so, could you be projecting that expectations onto partners or children?
Another is to explore why an expectations is important..what is it trying to achieve. Then you can look at whether or not that expectation is truly achieving your desired goal. Sometimes we realize that an expectation comes from a place or time that no longer applies. For instance what was true for our family isn’t true now. I’ve seen clients that grew up in a family where they had to yell to “feel heard.” They now yell at their partner and emotionally feel heard but are in fact causing their partner to shut down and not listen. You can imagine the destructive cycle this creates as yelling increases as does the shutting down.
Sometimes issues arise because while the expectations are stated as outcome (think happy and financially independent) but there is actually large investment in the process expectations (the path is college, med school, doctor). Sometimes there is good reason for the process expectations but sometimes the expectations exist almost undetected. Often this is a result of not having been exposed or aware of other routes to achieve the outcome. If you only see one door into a room, that becomes the way we assume everyone will enter. But this assumption can limit our exploration and discovery of other ways into the room.
And sometimes expectations that we have taken on aren’t really consistent with our own values. When we grow often our values shift and change. Sometimes we take on expectations, even without realizing it, that were created from our family’s values or our own old values. But those expectations may no longer consistent with our current values. Unless we explore our expectations we may be working in ways counter to our own values and goals.
Expectations are important. They aren’t something that should be constantly shifting and changing just because someone else doesn’t like or respect them. But neither should they be static, accepted without thought. Being aware and making sure you understand what your expectations are, where they come from and why you have them are important. And when they aren’t working for us in the way they should then adjust them. Don’t let outdated or unrecognized expectations bind you to avoidable disappointment.