I talked two weeks ago about how expectations are a natural and even required part of interacting with the world. However, they’re also an area that is fraught with peril for many of us. Brené Brown talks in Atlas of the Heart about how disappointment is the natural result of unmet expectations. In the recovery community, there is lots of experience with that disappointment festering and turning into resentment. And, resentment (he says from experience) is really not a fun place to live, or even to visit. So, how can we avoid ending up there?
One useful tool for me is to examine whether or not my expectations are reasonable. This is not intended as an opportunity for me to beat myself up. Instead, it’s an opportunity to change my perspective so that I can avoid similar disappointment in the future. If I can adjust my expectations so that they’re more reasonable, it’s more likely (but not guaranteed) that they will be met, and thus more likely that I’ll be able to avoid the disappointment/resentment cycle next time.
So, what are reasonable expectations, and how do I know if I have them? I still struggle to answer that question more than I would like to admit. But, I’m getting much better about identifying what an unreasonable expectation is. There are definitely a few flavors of unreasonable expectations that I’m prone to having:
Expecting other people to read my mind
This is probably the nastiest one for me. I have often been known to think along the lines of “You’re supposed to know how I feel without me telling you” or “If I have to ask for what I need, it means you’re not really enthusiastic about giving it and so it doesn’t mean anything” or other bullshit like that. But, I know that I suck at mind-reading, and I don’t know many other people who are good at it either. Expecting you to be good at it is, shall we say, not exactly full of smart, and is setting myself up for disappointment and resentment.
Brené Brown has a great description of this in Atlas of the Heart: “The movie in our mind is wonderful, but no one else knows their parts, their lines, or what it means to us.” Along the same lines, one of the most profound things my sponsor told me, long ago, was “If you’re going to write the script for other people, you need to give them a copy.” If I’m not giving you a copy of the script, it’s unlikely that you’re going to understand your part.
Expecting other people to behave exactly as I would
I’ve written before about how different people are different, and bring with them different backstories and different values. And, these differences can cause them to act completely differently in any given situation. What this means is that although you might behave exactly how I would in a given situation, you also very well might not.
Expecting people to be different from who they are
This is sometimes related to the previous one, but not always. If I know that you typically respond to conflict by shutting down and backing away, and then I confront you with something I’m upset about and expect you to willingly and directly engage with me in that discussion, that’s probably not reasonable. I know you don’t usually do this thing, but I’m expecting you to do it anyway? Probably not the most reasonable of expectations.
Expecting people or institutions to do what they should do
It’s easy for me to rationally and dispassionately analyze a situation, and come up with the course of action that makes the most logical sense — to me. If I then expect you to take that course of action, though, I’m forgetting several very important things. First, people (and sometimes organizations) aren’t rational creatures; they’re emotional creatures, and you may well not do the rational thing. Second, my analysis might be flawed. I might be missing information, or I might be prioritizing differently than you, or I might have just flat out made a mistake in my thinking. Third, of course, I might be forgetting that you’re not me, and your thinking about what you should do is quite possibly very different from mine.
If the expectation is reasonable, now what?
If the expectation that I have doesn’t meet any of these categories, then maybe it’s reasonable. But, it still might not get met. You still might not do what I expect you to do, and I might end up being disappointed. Now what?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that the disappointment is real, it’s natural, and there’s nothing wrong with it. I don’t know about you, but acknowledging my emotions is still something that I often find challenging. So, when I’m confronted with an unmet expectation, it’s important for me to acknowledge (at least to myself) that I’m disappointed.
After that, though, I try to move away from the disappointment and towards serenity. Depending on the exact nature of the situation, there are a few perspectives that I can take that may help me do that.
If the expectation was about someone else’s behavior, it’s useful for me to take a compassionate and empathetic perspective. Have I let other people down? Yes, yes I have. Have I disappointed myself, or been unable to perform at the level that I wanted? Yes, yes I have. When I can remember that I also let people down, it’s easier to accept when other people let me down. My favorite capsule definition of empathy is “The feeling of ‘yeah, me too’,” and this is a great place for me to take an empathetic perspective.
Sometimes, though, the expectation isn’t about other people as much as it is about the world in general. In those cases, I try to take a broader perspective on things. How important was this really? Will I still care about it a year from now? Six months from now? Most of the time, the answer here is “No, no I will not.” Even when I conceivably will care about it a year from now, it’s very rarely as big of a deal as my mind wants to make it out to be. Reminding myself of that (and focusing my self-talk on that) is a useful way for me to move out of the disappointment and into acceptance.
And, in both of those cases, it’s useful for me to remind myself that the fact that my expectation didn’t get met is very rarely about me. In fact, huge parts of my life are not about me. I’ll talk about this more next week.