What do you imagine would happen to your relationships if you let go of all your expectations? Not just your expectations of your partner, but of your friends and families too? What purpose do you imagine the expectations you have of them serve? Do you imagine you use them to protect yourself, to make sure you are respected, cared for, not ‘taken advantage of’? What are some of the expectations you have of others that you imagine you would find really hard to let go of?
“I expect you to treat me with some respect. Look at me when I’m talking!”
“I expect some consideration. Just pick up the phone once in a while.”
“I expect you to care about my feelings.”
“I expect to be consulted before you make decisions that affect me.”
“I expect you to answer my texts with more than just a smiley-face.”
“I expect you to treat us all fairly and equally.”
If these are some of your expectations (or ones you’ve been subject to) how do you feel in your body as you hear the words “I expect you to…”?
How do you feel as you say them yourself?
When I state an expectation I have of someone I straighten my back and lift my chin, sometimes clenching my jaw. I look the person I am talking to in the eye, so they know I am serious about what I am saying, and in my head I have a story that I am ‘right’ or that I am ‘standing up for myself’. I have all kinds of other stories I associate with my expectations — like ‘I treat others this way so I want the same’ and ‘I would never do that to you so why are you doing it to me’ — and moral judgements like ‘you are being inconsiderate’ also come into my head.
In my experience, my expectations of others always come wrapped in a whole mess of my own judgements about how people ‘should’ behave towards each other, judgements that I have accumulated over a lifetime. How one partner should treat the other, how children should behave towards their parents (and vice versa), how we should treat our loved ones, our family members, our elderly. And I imagine that most of us have been raised to believe that we ‘should’ treat others well, because we can then ‘expect’ to be treated well ourselves in return.
So what would happen if I let go of that expectation?
When I first started to notice how my own expectations of others affected my relationships, the story I found I had was one of being perpetually ‘let down’, accompanied by feelings of irritation and peevish thoughts like “well I would never do something like that!”. I filled myself with self-righteousness, telling myself that I was somehow a better person for displaying more consideration and care in my past actions than they did, whilst at the same time experiencing some pretty unpleasant feelings in my body. My chest felt tight, my eyes hot and teary, and my lips trembled. “You don’t care about me!” was my thought, “If you did you would do this thing I expect of you without my having to ask you it! You would just know that I needed you to do it!”
My expectation of others was a belief that they should behave in a certain way, and very often I chose not to share that expectation with them, with the opinion that — if they truly knew me — they would simply guess what was required of them. I did not state what I wanted, I just wanted it. In a way, it was a little like a really painful silent game that I played with myself — “Guess What I Need Without Me Telling You” — except that there was no prize, because guessing correctly was just what was expected.
A while ago I wrote a piece about feeling resentment for stuff people hadn’t done (What Didn’t I Do Now?), in which I talked a little about how often our anger can come from our unspoken expectations. What happens though when we find the courage to speak our expectations out loud and make requests for what we want? The answer is that we are then faced with yet another expectation, that if we say what we need we expect to get it. And this expectation is one which — in my experience — we are often firmly attached to.
So how do I express a need or a want to someone without attaching myself to the expectation that it will be fulfilled?
- Firstly, I can ask myself what I will do if they say ‘no’. Can I take care of the need for myself somehow, or can I ask someone else for what I need?
- I can ask the other person if they are willing to give me what I want, in order to make clear that it is a request rather than an expectation I have or a demand. I can clarify this further by adding ‘…and if you don’t want to do it, I will take care of myself’ or something similar
- I can tell the other person any story I might have that their not doing it means they don’t care about me or love me
- I can report how I feel in my body and my thoughts as I make my request, in order to communicate fully what is going on for me — i.e “I feel shaking in my legs and I’m making myself feel scared with a thought that you will be angry.”
I tell myself that communicating what is going on in my body and thoughts is an important part of making a request because it clarifies that our need is about us, and our own story of what constitutes acceptance and love, in short:
“I have this expectation, and I have a story I need this thing for everything to be OK between us. And I will be OK if you say no, and I would like you to say yes.”
Letting go of your hidden expectations of others can also mean letting go of your expectations of yourself. Allowing someone the freedom and choice to say ‘no’ or ‘I don’t want to right now’ means you can also allow yourself the same. Of course the person you’re responding to may have their own set of expectations about how you should react, but rather than being a source of conflict your interaction with them could be an opportunity for a conversation about their own stories about that.
I imagine that a good example of one of the ways we create suffering for ourselves using our expectations is how — in recent times — we have begun to respond to text messages.
Since the advent of IM apps like ‘Facebook Messenger’ and ‘WhatsApp’ it’s been possible for us to see when the other person has not only received our message, but when they have viewed it too. I recently had not one but two clients tell me that they had argued and fallen out with friends and family members over the other person’s inability to respond to their IM messages, the expectation being that — once read — the message should be replied to immediately, as it would be in a face-to-face conversation. This expectation has become so pervasive that ‘leaving someone on Read’ has now become a popular phrase to describe one person showing disinterest in another or coldly rejecting their advances.
Although one could argue that this is more an example of how (as the internet generation) we have become hooked on instant gratification, I think it’s worth considering that — along with our attention spans — our expectations of others may also be evolving and changing. And as we surround ourselves with more and more idealised images of friendships, families and relationships, are our expectations of what we need from others (and what they need from us) becoming more or less realistic? Are we becoming more impatient, more demanding? As with everything, my personal feeling is that so much tension and suffering between people could be avoided if we could only learn to communicate our experience, our feelings and sensations and our imaginings, honestly and clearly in the moment.
And if you imagine that someone in your life has an expectation of you, try checking with them to find out if your imagining is real, or if the expectation you’re trying to live up to is something you’ve created all by yourself.
Law Turley is a BACP Registered Integrative Therapist and Certified Radical Honesty Trainer living and working in the south west of the UK.