Expectations can be a double-edged sword. In some ways they can help push us beyond what we might have been able to achieve on our own. Like when we feel that someone else believes in us more than we do at a given moment, that they must be right and that we really do have it in us. Their expectations can inspire us to find something we had within us all along and just needed a little nudge to see for ourselves. This can be the result of feeling the pressure of expectations of others with regards to something we genuinely want for ourselves as well.
The problem can be when we’re trying to rise to others’ expectations of us to do something that we don’t really want to do, when we are doing something ONLY because we feel it’s what we are expected to do. This brings about feelings of obligation that, rather than empowering us, can be so counter productive that we will willingly make ourselves miserable trying to fulfill that obligation. For obvious reasons, this isn’t exactly a healthy thing for us most of the time.
I’m pretty familiar with both the above types of expectations. I did a lot of things growing up not only because I wanted them for myself, but also because I felt like I was expected to (or I was outright told that). I got good grades in school, I was active in sports and extracurricular activities, I became an Eagle scout around my 16th birthday all because I was expected to, and I genuinely wanted to.
I also went into the military because my father and grandfathers had, and I felt I was expected to but even as a patriotic individual, I didn’t ever really think about whether it was what I wanted to do. It was just doing my duty, fulfilling my obligation and there is a significant difference between willing to and wanting to. Furthermore, I went off to College at Penn State because it was where I’d been told all along that I was expected to go. I grew up going to football games and visiting campus, hell I spent a few years living there surrounded by it while my dad was getting his bachelor’s degree and my mom was finishing her PhD.
Penn State is a great school and I really enjoyed my time there as well as learning a great deal, but I went there with no real idea of what I wanted to get out of the experience. I started majoring in mechanical engineering because my dad did and, once again, I felt like it was what he expected me to do. As many freshmen do, I changed my major in the first year opting for Criminal Justice with minors in military studies, sociology, and women’s studies. Before anyone starts snickering about studying women being just about half the point of college, it was essentially feminism studies.
But I digress. I did those things out of a sense of obligation and while I got something out of the experience, who knows where I might be, for better or worse, if I’d spent that time figuring out what it was that I really wanted for myself without the sense of obligation I felt from other people’s expectations. I would like to think that I’ve gotten past feeling any sense of obligation from other people’s expectations and don’t let them have any effect on me anymore. Only time and further wisdom will reveal if I’m right in that thought.
I do know I’m still subject to that other sort of expectations, the ones we impose upon ourselves. These can be both immensely empowering, having come from a place strictly of belief in ourselves, or totally debilitating depending upon how we are able to manage them. When we can be realistic about our own expectations and not get down on ourselves when life happens, things are great. When we get stuck feeling like we aren’t living up to those expectations often we stay stuck and feel like failures.
To use myself as an example, I sat here tonight just satisfied with my world as a whole. I had a really good day doing what I enjoy, I picked up my new truck, I had a nice dinner, and a show I enjoy was on TV. All was well in my world and I was really enjoying relaxing and just hanging out without doing anything. I’ll have my daughter for the next 5 days, so I was giving myself a pass on being super productive and just taking some “me time”. I still expected myself to do my nightly writing though because it is a commitment I made to myself. Even though I did quite a bit of writing this morning, I still wanted to have something to post for tonight.
The problem was, I didn’t really have anything that I felt all that compelled to discuss. I wrote about the importance of talking less and listening more last night and thought maybe a good follow up would be to take my own advice and stop my mental chatter for a night; just spend the night quietly being. I wanted to stick to my commitment more though, so after starting and deleting several false starts, I shut the TV off, put in my headphones, and called the pups up on to the couch to sit with them and just feel some love and try to clear my mind a bit.
A song or two later, I started thinking about how I’d let my own expectations paralyze my creative efforts and that I’d been trying too hard to make something come to me instead of just letting it happen. By sitting there passively, expecting nothing, and letting the experience happen to me, relinquishing the reigns of control, the thoughts started trickling in and it felt much better. Another song or two later, the boys evidently decided I was ready and hopped down and away my fingers went.
They say, “When you expect nothing, you’re never disappointed” and I can’t see a reason to argue the point. But what they don’t tell you is that you may just be quite delightfully surprised when the results are much more than you could have expected in the first place.