This is not a “can women have it all” post. I don’t want it all, so I’m not going to write about whether or not I can have it all, and if my friends want it all I don’t have any intention of discouraging them. Go for it all, I say, and you just might find you get what you need. I hope you do.
Here’s a saying, because I am a little lazy and can’t figure out another way to start: “Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.”
Most of the heartache in my life has come from dashed expectations – I didn’t get a job I felt I deserved, someone I loved and was so, so good to betrayed me anyway, a relative forgot my birthday. Or everyone forgot my birthday. It hurts when people don’t do what I think they’re going to do, what I want them to do, or what I think I need them to do. It also hurts when people don’t do what I think they should do, because, you know, I just want them to be happy and fulfilled, and who better than me would know what would accomplish that, amIright??
Whoa, there fella! Yeah, that’s my problem right there. I always think I know better. I have all the answers and if everyone would just listen to me, everyone’s life would run a whole heckuva lot more smoothly, thanks.
How did a post about expectations become about control? For me, at least, these things have a long sordid history of being inexorably linked.
Life is a lot easier when it’s predictable, so naturally a good strategy is to try to make life as predictable as possible. I’ve tried to control my environment, my possessions, and, sometimes, even my nearest and dearest. For me, this is a survival mechanism I developed living as a helpless child in a dysfunctional home where addiction and anger ruled the roost. In that environment, trying to manage things probably helped me avoid a crisis or two, but as an adult, navigating mature romantic, platonic, and professional relationships, it snowballed into something decidedly unhelpful. All of those skills I learned in order to get by at the base levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are not necessarily relevant in the world at large, but I never developed any other, healthier ways of getting my needs met, and I certainly never dreamed of allowing myself to be the primary meeter-of-my-own-needs (for want of a better term). So instead of adapting to the new environment, I continued to try to change the environment to one I understand how to navigate.
I became entangled in unhealthy romantic relationships because I was looking for some familiar territory. I created drama where none was necessary because it was more comfortable than living in peace. And everything I did was tainted by my own unrealistic expectations of myself and others, hindering my ability to make healthier choices and enjoy deeper intimacy in relationships, and ultimately sabotaging myself from getting into those lovely cool tones of Maslow’s pyramid.
Let’s be clear I’m talking about unrealistic expectations. A realistic expectation is that the sun will come up tomorrow. Sure, it might not, but it always has, so it’s a good bet you can count on it tomorrow. If it doesn’t, well, we have bigger problems than some dashed expectations. It’s also reasonable to assume that if you have fulfilled your job duties for the last pay period, your employer will deposit a check into your account on the prescribed date for the prescribed amount. You have a contract with your employer so they reasonably expect you to do your job, you reasonably expect them to pay you. If only it were always so simple.
What about marriage or long-term committed relationships? Is fidelity a reasonable expectation? What about household obligations? For some people, obligations in romantic relationships are not as clear cut as they are in professional ones. For folks like me who grew up in survival mode, there is often no model of a healthy relationship to even let us know what it’s supposed to look like. We grew up feeling compelled to guess and anticipate everyone else’s needs to avoid conflict – guessing seems just like par for the course. We also subjugated our own needs in an effort to “not make waves” so we have no skills for communicating what we want and need to another person, and the idea of doing so comes with a fear that often can’t be articulated. We don’t feel we deserve to have or even ask for what we want and need, that others’ needs are more important than our own. So for someone who never feels worthy of love, fidelity might in fact not be a reasonable expectation. And doing all of the household chores may seem like just penance for getting to stay in a relationship (even though to their partner, such behavior may come across as controlling).
Even platonic relationships can be a minefield for some. How often do you hear about people who claim they give and give and give and are shocked and surprised when their generosity is not returned with equal intensity? For them, the act of giving sets up what they believe to be a reasonable expectation, even though they haven’t communicated that directly, the implication being: I do this for you because it is something I would like you to do for me. And other people, being generally not other-focused, don’t always (or usually, maybe) take the hint. This causes resentment in the giver and puts a strain on the relationship that one of the people involved may not even notice or understand.
Personally, I have had to learn to give only when I expect nothing in return. I never lend large sums of money (even if I have it), but I’m happy to pick up a dinner tab or a show when I’m enjoying someone’s company. I don’t lend books to people who’ve failed to return other books to me before, but I may give you one if I don’t think I’ll ever read it again. In marriage, I try to let my husband know what I need – I am not great at it, but I get better with practice – but I am almost a natural now when it comes to letting go of the expectation that he, or anyone else, will be able to meet all of my needs. I still stumble when it comes to expectations and relationships, but nine times out of time it’s my assumptions that are out of whack in the first place.
Overall I’ve come a long way in adjusting my expectations of others and limiting the resentments that can stem from them. I’ve also come a long way from trying to control others’ behavior to suit my needs, and in general, on focusing more on what other people are doing-thinking-feeling than on what I’m doing-thinking-feeling. I focus on trying to accept people exactly as they are (as opposed to how I imagine or wish they would be) and making my decisions about them accordingly.
The expectation game that I’ve been engaged with lately is limited to the one I’m playing with myself.
Other people tell me they want to lose weight and I look at them and I think, Oh my god, why? You are beautiful just as you are. I ask them, “But how do you feel?” in the hopes that they will think about the idea that how they feel is a lot more important than what size clothes they’re wearing. On the other hand, I see the number on my scale and plunge into a shame spiral of despair, convinced the only thing that will make me feel better is an entire loaf of bread. I don’t get the benefit of the doubt that I just might feel happier when I’m not on a restrictive diet or an intense exercise schedule. Instead, I only allow myself to feel like I am doing something wrong, not putting enough of an effort.
I encourage people all the time to look for a job that makes them happy, even if it means less money or prestige. But when I remember that I have limited job mobility in my office, I feel ashamed. It doesn’t matter that I like what I do, that I admire and respect the people I work with, that I’ve been recognized for excellence in my position, or that I am making enough to support myself and my husband without having to worry about an unexpected expense now and then, like a new dishwasher or major medical bills for a beloved pet. Instead, I only allow myself to feel like a failure for not ever being up for a promotion.
I counsel patience with the audition process for my fellow actors. Having spent some time on the other side of the table, I’ve learned how impersonal most casting decisions are, how more often than not decisions come down to things that are not even remotely within the actor’s control. When I don’t get a part, however, I am pretty sure the Real Reason is because everyone on the other side of the table thinks I should probably get the heck out of this business before I embarrass myself into oblivion.
I’m forty-three years old and I’m tired of the never-ending expectation game I’ve been playing with myself my whole life. Instead of berating myself for what I should be but I’m not, I want to be grateful for who and what I am, for the things I have and for the pretty amazing people I’ve collected along the way. It’s an overused aphorism, but the business about life not being a dress rehearsal is pretty spot-on. Time to get out of my own way and embrace the unpredictably in life just as I would on the stage. Time to accept myself for exactly who I am right now, and making my choices accordingly, the same as I would for anyone else.