The Terror of Expectations
Updated: Jun 21
Unrealistic expectations can cause us to give ourselves away to such an extent that we end up feeling we are a tiny little nubbin of exhaustion without one iota of energy left to do the next task. That may sound melodramatic, but haven’t we all pushed ourselves past our limits because we felt we should do it all—and perfectly? Or because we felt others expected perfection of us?
Our own expectations and the expectations of others can kill us emotionally. All of us—women, men, and children, young and old—have suffered under the tyranny of expectations. Didn’t we expect our honeymoons to be romantic and idyllic and our children perfect? Only a few are.
There’s a scene in a play I once saw where one of the characters gives a wonderful commentary on expectations. She’s talking to a classmate at a high-school reunion and says, “I thought that once he and I got together things would change. That’s what’s written over the women’s entrance to Hell: ‘Things Will Change.’”
Change is inevitable and to be expected, but so much of what we expect is sheer fantasy. We expect to be able to make our families happy. (Unfortunately, many of us have allowed our families, too, to expect us to make them happy.) We expect ourselves to be unfailingly bright, cheerful, and healthy. We expect ourselves to be unchangingly attractive, always patient and nurturing, a constant source of wisdom and comfort. Unrealistic expectations such as these are exhausting, not to mention terrifying and paralyzing.
One of the most crippling things we can do to ourselves is expect someone else to make us happy. Other people can only help to bring out what is already within us, such as the capacity to feel good about ourselves, to feel useful, to feel loved. When we feel unhappy and unfulfilled “because” of others, we can be sure we’re giving ourselves away. We then need to take a long look at the beliefs and expectations we hold that are keeping us dependent on others.
Maria, the woman who was raised a Catholic and who was emotionally abused by her husband, finally said, “Enough!” To save her life emotionally, she left her husband. Unfortunately, because she took so long to free herself from the indoctrination of her church and to realize that she had other choices, her sons were old enough to resist leaving their school and home and chose to stay with their father. Had she honored her limits and boundaries sooner, maybe her marriage could have been salvaged and her mothering role secured. But so many years of swallowed pain and anger had created scars and animosity so deep that it was too late for the marriage.
It’s important to notice that there’s a definite difference between asking for what we want and need and expecting others to follow a hidden script we’ve written for them. Often, especially when strong-willed people are involved, there are going to be different ideas about how to live, work, and play. By adhering too rigidly to our interiorized picture of how things should be, we activate normal, healthy rebellion in other people.
My husband and I had a fairy-tale romance. We met in Hawaii and courted across the Pacific. It was perfect. We were perfect, confident that we’d been sprinkled with fairy dust and that our relationship would be forever blissful. Of course, it wasn’t. After we’d settled into an everyday routine, our real lives began to get in the way of our expectations of happily ever after.
As a novice marriage counselor with a divorce in my background, I felt I had a pretty realistic picture of what my new marriage should be. However, my husband’s wants, needs, and images differed significantly from mine. It took me a long time and a lot of grieving to realize that I was smothering our relationship with my expectations and my “expertise.” I was activating my husband’s rebel personality with my it-has-to-be- this-way script. After a great deal of inner struggling, I was able to stop terrorizing both of us with my idealistic expectations.
A funny thing then happened. After a cooling-off period, when he trusted that I had really gotten off his back, he began to inch toward being the way I’d earlier demanded that he be.
Since I’d released those expectations and found other ways to fulfill my needs, his change was much appreciated (the chocolate chips in the cookie of life), but no longer necessary for my emotional survival.
As I found out, in even the most stable and caring relationships, there will be unmet expectations. I may expect a quiet evening of firelight and intimate sharing, and he may intend to watch basketball. We both may expect our kids for dinner, and they’ll want to go have pizza with friends. We simply can’t survive emotionally if we insist that every expectation be fulfilled. Life just isn’t set up that way, so the healthiest response is to stay very flexible and not take it personally when our expectations fizzle.