3 minutes reading time (674 words)

The Cost of Our Expectations

The Cost of Our Expectations

by Joel Christie

Healthy expectations have the potential to create boundaries and direction within our lives, such as "I expect to be treated respectfully by others," or "I expect that my hard work will help me solve problems and achieve goals." If these things don't happen as I expect, it may signal to me that change is needed. Useful. Healthy. Good.

But let's be clear: many of our expectations are not only unhealthy, they are outright destructive. "I expect my boyfriend to take me to Paris every other weekend. A girl deserves to be treated right, doesn't she?" Or what about: "I expect my wife to buy me a Ferrari for my thirtieth birthday. She'll do it if she loves me." And this one: "I expect my kids to behave perfectly, in every situation, always. Forever. With no exceptions. Period."

See? Expectations can be trouble. You might think, "Well duh, of course those expectations are a problem because they're completely unreasonable." Ah-ha! But that's the real issue, isn't it? We almost always think our own expectations are reasonable. "I expect my kids to get straight A's—I certainly did, after all," might seem reasonable to mom or dad, but for the kid who is genuinely giving his or her best only to fall short, we could probably imagine those expectations feel quite different. "But she's not giving her best," I often hear parents say. So in this case, the unreasonable expectation might be that the child always gives her best. And yet do any of us always give our best? Of course not. But we tend to have this strange ability to muster up sympathy for our own tiredness, boredom, lack of effort, etc. Hmm...

When we say, "I expect," what we're really saying is, "I will not tolerate less than..." Not only can this set us up for frequent disappointment, it can also send a strong message towards those whom our expectations are aimed at that we will not accept them unless they meet our expectations. This not only feels lousy, it is also very hard on relationships. Have you been on the receiving end of someone's expectations that you were unable or unwilling to live up to? It sucks, doesn't it.

I've heard the objections to this. "So I'm just supposed to throw my standards out the window? Not hope for anything? Not expect anything of anyone?" Not at all! What it means is that we learn to shift our expectations towards being healthier and more realistic. If my son is struggling with math, and I come to realize that he frequently puts in considerable effort, my expectation can change from "Get straight A's" to "Keep on trying; I like that you're learning the value of perseverance."

Rethinking our expectations absolutely doesn't mean I suddenly become a doormat in my relationships, or that I am not passionate about anything. No, changing our expectations in this way means coming to understand that everyone has flaws and imperfections, and that sometimes I will feel disappointed by others just as they feel disappointed by me. In those moments, I can either choose to communicate how disappointed I am by the way this person has failed to meet my expectations, or I can express that I care about them. But it's tough to communicate both of these things successfully at the same time. (Often, a good indicator of which of these I am communicating comes from the way the person responds to me.)

The cost of expectations can be steep indeed. Parents who communicate to their children time and time again that they failed to live up to expectations might or might not end up with children who learn to perform and achieve as required. But their children will very likely remember that mom or dad didn't approve of them when they failed, making their love feel conditional. And it's much the same in our relationships as well. If what I expect from others is perfection, I will always eventually be let down. And so will they.

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