Recently, I hung out for a little while with my best friend from high school. In his usual, frank, and open manner, he shared a little advice about family and friends he heard: “Expect the best from yourself, but very little from everyone else.”
Cynical? Perhaps, but also startlingly true nonetheless. On a particularly practical level, this aphorism can buy you peace of mind. That’s because we are all fallible and prone to letting someone down at some point. It’s not (at least for most of us) that were terrible, unredeemable wretches. Part of it is that we simply have busy lives, and things that are not true priorities for us are inevitably going to be crushed under the proverbial wheel of life.
But it actually goes deeper than that, for our lack of self-awareness makes us perpetual victims of our own ill-conceived expectations. This is because we are unconsciously trying to heal our wounds of disappointment stemming from our childhood and adolescence.
Dr. Shefali, a clinical psychologist and expert in family dynamics and personal development, frames it this way: “Safe to say, that each one of us grows up with some of our core needs missing – some more extremely than others. As our imperfect parents were unable to meet these needs, we were not only left with an empty void in its place but also, without the tools to meet them for ourselves.”
In a sense, continually having unrealistic expectations while simultaneously nursing our wounds when we are inevitably disappointed is a mechanism for not taking responsibility for our own emotional needs and psychological growth. Instead, we plod along, grumbling about how horribly unreliable and selfish people are, never bothering to look inward for the answers.
Culture critic Heidi Priebe writes, “Disappointment is entirely a construction of our own expectations. And no matter how many promises someone else made us, reality has no responsibility to comply with our expectations.” I suspect she is onto a deeper truth about the world and how we function in it, but it may be a bitter pill some us are unwilling to swallow.
Part of what’s at play is related to how we process sadness, a logical byproduct of being disappointed. Too often, we experience disappointment and concomitant sadness when there is too large of a gap between what we expect, and what the other person can offer.
Mary Lamia, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who works with adults, couples, adolescents, and preteens and the author of the book, The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others, explains that “You may be disappointed in a parent, your child, your spouse, a lover, an employer or job, an event, or in yourself. In any case, disappointment is the experience of sadness involving unfulfilled hopes or expectations. When you consider what might have been, in contrast to what exists in the present, you may experience disappointment.”
And beyond the woundedness and sadness lurks another energy-sucking beast: anger. When people disappoint us, which they inevitably will, our inner child, not having his or her needs met, becomes angry and resentful, thus setting up a vicious cycle. Unfortunately, resentment is an insatiable animal, always seeking easy prey, which often happens to be other people who have nothing to do with the initial anger or resentment to begin with, eventually leading to our isolation.
This isolation, in turn, perpetuates the disappointment-anger-resentment cycle. Ultimately though, all the wounds become self-inflicted. As the Irish-American writer Malachy McCourt warns, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Dr. Shafali actually has a formula for this cycle:
Unmet inner need = unrealistic fantasy of object or person = unmet expectations = resentment and rage = conflict and despair = dysfunction and self-sabotage.
Alternately, it is just as counterproductive to continually try to please other people in an attempt to make yourself feel better about your place and role in the world. In order to fill an inner void, people will agree to do almost anything, even if it compromises their physical health or emotional well-being.
As psychotherapist Amy Morin points out, “For many, the eagerness to please stems from self-worth issues. They hope saying yes to everything asked of them will help them feel accepted and liked. Other people-pleasers have a history of maltreatment. And somewhere along the way they decided their best hope for better treatment was to try and please the people who mistreated them. Over time, people-pleasing became a way of life.”
This people-pleasing syndrome is as equally destructive as having unrealistic expectations of others. Dr. Shafali reminds us, “Not only do we project unrealistic expectations on others, we also do the reverse: we allow ourselves to be the vessel of someone else’s unrealistic expectations. This is often called co-dependency or enabling. It occurs when we – because we are empty from within and out of touch with our authentic selves – mistakenly believe we are responsible for another person’s pain and should be part of their growth. This lack of self-worth causes us to have extremely poor boundaries.”
At the end of the day, these unrealistic expectations of ourselves or of others are two sides of the same coin, a coin that loses its value rapidly and painfully the more we insist on using it as a form of emotional currency. But this scheme never rewards us in the ways that we seek. Rather, it leaves us poorer than when we started, emotionally bedraggled, weighted down by our own expectations.
But there is a way out, a path out of the darkness. The entrepreneur and former Esquire magazine editor-in-chief and C.E.O. turned Buddhist teacher Phillip Moffit has the following enlightening words to ponder:
The good news is that you do not have to continue to suffer from the tyranny of expectations. It is one of the most troublesome areas of life, yet it is also changeable. Even a little effort makes a huge difference. But first you must penetrate the nature of expectations, observe how they manifest themselves in your life, and be able to access another way of approaching the future.
Expectations are almost always the result of what in Buddhism is called “wanting mind.” This wanting mind is driven by desire, aversion, and anxiety; it creates an illusion of solidity and control in a world that is constantly changing and unfolds independently of how we believe it should.
From this perspective, the antidote is to stop living in the past in which we relive our psychic wounds, or the future, in which we constantly worry about what others will do. Instead, focus on the present, on the here and now, which in reality, is the only time we actually have. By living in the present, we can shift from the ruinous nature of unrealistic expectations to the bright world of unlimited possibilities.
The universe is full of possibilities, big and small, if you have an open heart and mind to receive them. Expectations clog the avenues that lead to these possibilities, making it more difficult if not impossible for the myriad of wonders to unfold that God has in store for you. As the side bard William Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” So make the shift, ponder the possibilities the universe has in store for you, and you can rewrite the formula this way:
Living in the present=open to possibilities=universe responds= incredible growth=wisdom=peace happiness and love
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