When I took my daughter to the pediatrician for her annual checkup, they gave me a guide sheet with her weight, height, etc. One phrase jumped out at me. It read, “Age appropriate expectations.” “Wow,” I thought, “that’s helpful.” I knew that I certainly lost track and thought of her as a mini-adult sometimes. It’s so unfair to a child; to be expected to be an adult. I also knew that I sometimes expected too much from other people and from myself. It made me wish that every person came with an “individual-appropriate” list.
The pediatrician’s list informed parents of things that we could expect from our child at that age. She ought to be able to stack cups in size order or sort things by color. The list didn’t say “have empathy for her tired mom” or “understand that mom has errands to run and traffic to deal with and dinner to make, so we don’t have a half hour to look at a flower.” And yet, sometimes I wanted her to be aware of my needs. I wanted her to be conscious of time…even though she had no concept of time yet.
It’s a drag to be the object of someone’s disappointment
What was it like for her when I would get frustrated with her for something she couldn’t even comprehend? Can you imagine what it’s like to fail to live up to other people’s expectations? I’m sure you can, because we all experience it.
It’s so discouraging. You feel bad about yourself. You want to make that other person happy or proud of you but you can’t seem to do it. You think that something is wrong with you or that you’re inferior to other people. You think, “Other people must be able to do this…or they wouldn’t be expecting it of me.”
Sure, there are times when disappointment is appropriate and motivating, pushing you to try harder and fulfill your potential. But if it’s an inappropriate expectation, no matter how hard you try, you will never succeed.
What if the expectations you’re experiencing are not age-appropriate, gender-appropriate, culturally-appropriate, economically-appropriate or individually-appropriate for you?
Not all people are capable of doing everything in every way. I’m not an artist. I cannot expect myself to draw a picture as beautifully as an artist can. You’re not rich; your significant other can’t expect you to go to expensive restaurants every weekend. You’re eighteen and you’re not ready to do retirement planning.
Individuals have different talents, perspectives, educations. We each have different tools in our toolbox. It doesn’t make us bad or good for what we are capable of. In fact, focusing on what we can’t do might get in the way of seeing what we can do. You can waste so much time looking at what’s not working that you don’t see what is working.
Freeing Yourself from Inappropriate Expectations
The first step in freeing yourself from inappropriate expectations is through identifying them. If you aren’t aware of these expectations you might just swallow them whole and live your life trying to live up to them. Anytime you hear the word “should” you might want to take a closer look. “Shoulds” are expectations. “Have to” “must” are also expectation words.
If you’re trying to fulfill expectations that you can’t fulfill, you may just get stuck. You can’t move forward and so you don’t move at all.
Choosing for Yourself
There are a lot of expectations that are non-negotiable. Our jobs expect us to be on time. Our creditors expect us to pay the bills. But many other expectations get heaped on us without our conscious agreement.
For example, just because you agreed to commit to a relationship with someone doesn’t mean that you agreed to fulfill all of their expectations of you. If they start to expect you to bear the entire financial burden or all of the domestic responsibilities, it may be time to negotiate. Even if you love and respect your parents, that doesn’t mean you have to fulfill their expectations that you become a doctor.
Additionally, we develop inappropriate expectations of ourselves based on societal messages that we swallowed unconsciously. Do you know where you’re beliefs about what sort of person you should be or what sort of lifestyle you should live? Do you have the right to choose to live differently than your community expects?
This is your life and you get to choose what you believe a good life looks like.
Tolerating Other People’s Disappointment
There will be times when you realize that you don’t want to or can’t live up to other people’s expectations of you and they will be disappointed. It’s hard to tolerate the disappointment of someone you care about. You feel bad for them. They’re sad. They wanted something from you that you can’t give them. It’s hard to see someone you care about feeling sad. But not all sadness is your responsibility. Look to your own disappointments for comfort. You’ve had to soothe your own disappointments sometimes and they can soothe their own. We all sometimes want things we can’t have. Now that’s an age-appropriate expectation: to be able to soothe our own disappointment. We started learning to do that the first time our ice cream fell onto the sidewalk and no one was around to buy us a new one. It is not your job to make sure that no one else is ever disappointed.
Acknowledge Your Greatness
Take the time to appreciate who you already are and what you’ve already accomplished. Don’t just focus on what isn’t there yet or who you are hoping to be. There’s already so much to appreciate about who you are.
Take a tip from the baby you. Back then, it was age-appropriate to love yourself and be thrilled by your every step forward. It’s still age-appropriate to appreciate yourself and your ongoing development.
If you’re interested in learning how psychotherapy can help you, contact Rena Pollak, LMFT for a free 15 minute phone consultation. I have a private practice in Encino and Calabasas.
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