“When you release expectations, you are free to enjoy things for what they are instead of what you think they should be.”
This wonderful quote by Mandy Hale neatly sums up how we often make our lives more difficult and frustrating when we have unrealistic expectations. The key words and phrases here are “should,” “free,” and “what you think.”
The word “should” often shows up in the speech of someone who is pushing too hard. Surprisingly, a simple exercise like paying attention to the words we use can help us see how we are causing ourselves unnecessary stress. Common examples are “I should get back to work” or “I should cancel my exercise and work late.” When we push too hard, we experience more stress, perform less efficiently, set ourselves up for disappointment, and can make ourselves ill.
The first thing to realize about expectations is that they come from two places, the most apparent being from other people, but we can also place expectations on ourselves. Those self-imposed expectations are sometimes the hardest to sense. However, they may be easier to tackle because you are working on something you can control—your own thoughts and feelings. Many of us have a tendency to be too harsh and expect far too much from ourselves. Being hard on ourselves started early for both me and for my husband because we were raised by over-achieving parents. In fact, I call myself a ‘recovering perfectionist’ these days. As young kids, we absorbed our parents strong work ethic and pushed ourselves quite hard. It can be difficult to see that tendency in ourselves because we are simply doing what we watched others do. It isn’t just from our parents; these messages also come from our schools and society. It is no wonder that many of us in the United States are driven to an unhealthy degree. There is nothing wrong with the concept of having big goals and working hard, but most of us err on the side of going overboard. As in all areas of life, finding the appropriate balance is the key to a happier and more fulfilling life.
In effect, we become our own worst critic when we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves. I often like to remind my clients that our minds continually create a constant “chatter” of thoughts. Shockingly, it is estimated that we think 60,000-70,000 thoughts a day, with the majority of them being negative, and usually untrue. If we listen to and actually believe these thoughts, they can undermine our energy, productivity, and confidence.
But since we are the ones applying the pressure on ourselves, we alone are responsible for it and can make changes to regain a proper balance in our lives. The solution is giving ourselves permission to let go of some of that pressure, reconsider our priorities, and remember to nourish ALL of our needs. Exercise, prayer and meditation, time in nature, family time, connecting with our support network, and just having fun are all just as essential as our work. We cannot survive without these balancing activities, and we can achieve our goals much easier with kindness and self-compassion. All these self-care practices are part of my larger mission supporting others to love, respect, and take good care of their mind and body. It is difficult to truly feel deep love and respect for others if we do not feel love in our hearts for ourselves.
Perhaps more difficult is when the expectations are placed upon us by someone else. The playing field becomes a bit more muddled because of their involvement. Most of the time it is quite easy to see when others are placing their expectations on us. Once again, it is wise to stay on the lookout for that darn keyword “should”. Whether a phrase “you should…” is stated directly or indirectly, if we find that the expectation is unreasonable, or something we do not want to do, it is up to us to consider our boundaries. We may not have good boundaries for fear of speaking up and upsetting the other party. Or perhaps we have boundaries, but we have not made them clear to the other person involved. If we do not speak up, we shouldn’t be surprised that we are not being respected or understood. There are many resources to help learn how to set and maintain proper boundaries, and working with a good coach is one of them.
Worse still are the uncommunicated expectations others place upon us. These are insidious because they are not clearly stated, but they often lie in wait like land mines. When we do not conform to the expectation, suddenly the explosion of blame and resentment can catch us completely unaware. After all, how can we know what someone else considers to be the right thing for us to do, or share our feelings about it, if we are kept completely in the dark? It is really important to realize that these expectations reveal far more about them, and their need to control, than they do about us.
So how do we become “free” of these chains of other people’s unshared expectations? By gently explaining to the other person how damaging these uncommunicated expectations can be to a relationship. We need to emphasize that they need to be upfront and honest with us if they require something from us. Another option is for the other party to realize that trying to control another person never works, and simply let go of their attachment to what they think needs to happen. Often when we do this we find things flow the way they are supposed to and usually have a positive outcome. If all else fails, taking an honest look at who you invite into your life can be very powerful. If your goal is to be the best version of yourself without placing expectations and judgements on others, only allow like-minded, positive, peaceful people into your life.
If we decide that we need to respond to a judgement or expectation, it is much cleaner if we do not react emotionally. Take time to pause, take a few deep breaths, and calmly decide how you want to respond. When we react, we tend to speak unkindly with too much emotion. Much better is to consider the entire situation and do so with love, kindness, and respect. In doing so you can reduce the unrealistic expectations others have for us, and create more space in the relationship for compassion, understanding and love in the relationship.
Many people do not realize that we have far more power than we give ourselves credit for. Be easy on yourself; life is more of a marathon than a sprint. Take away needless expectations, and start appreciating what you have. Know who you are and what is important to you, including your boundaries. Aim to live your life so that you are true to your own needs and values, while being respectful of those around you. Find a proper and sustainable balance. When we release ourselves from our hurts and resentments, it makes forgiving others easier. Doing these things will always make your life journey more comfortable and fulfilling.
When you are able to manage your mind by being aware of “what you think”, and substitute positive and uplifting thoughts, you will be a much freer and happier human being. I have always liked Wayne Dyer’s quote, which seems quite fitting for this topic, as he encouraged us to not get caught up in what others think of us: “What other people think of me is none of my business. One of the highest places you can get to is being independent of the good opinions of other people.”