Last week I wrote about stories. This week I want to discuss a powerful element embedded in the stories we tell ourselves — the element of expectations.
This subject is too big and complicated for me to address in a single post. It touches on parenting, every aspect of relationship, and really every aspect of our experience, unless we’re Zen masters. Here’s a sample of what other people are saying about expectations.
I don’t know any Zen masters and I’m certainly not one, so for the rest of us unenlightened beings, let’s consider the subject of expectations and how they work to limit us, others and life.
Before I go further, a Google search of the term “expectations” will give you page after page of managing work expectations, and all the articles I looked at tell me expectations are necessary, positive and help companies, businesses and corporations be successful. Which means make money. So, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s put aside professional/work-related expectations. Let’s focus on intra and interpersonal expectations. Let’s be human beings instead of consumers and capitalists.
Expectations arise out of our past experience, our dreams, our hopes and fears, our unmet needs, our assumptions and our culture and family. They can be positive or negative. But expectations, like the stories we’ve created, are uniquely ours. We’ve usually made them up in our heads or accepted them from the overculture without question. I don’t suggest expectations are inherently wrong if we remember they’re just part of the stories we’re telling, but the problem is we don’t remember that. We cling to expectations and invest them with great certainty and power. They become our reality. This all happens internally and it doesn’t occur to us to check out what other people hope for or expect. It doesn’t occur to us to agree on terms or have a discussion. We just assume we’re all on the same page.
Here’s an example from my own life. My parents divorced when I was a child. In subsequent years, as I’ve married and had my own children, there have been references to “family.” What a “family” does or doesn’t do. What “family” means. The thing is, I don’t think Dad means the same thing Mom does when he talks about “family,” and I’m pretty sure neither one of them means what I do when I use the term.
I’ve never had a conversation with either of my parents about this, but I’m curious about their definitions. For each of my parents, “family” implies several expectations or rules of conduct about which I’m clearly ignorant and which I frequently have felt I’ve failed. Furthermore, I disagree with some of their expectations that I am aware of.
Life is full of words like this. Try these on: Parent, son/daughter, wife/husband, partner, friend, lover, teacher, mentor, girl/boyfriend, volunteer, etc., etc. We can define these terms pretty easily, but attached to each is a set of often invisible expectations. They’re very deep, so deep we never think about them. You know exactly what “family” means, right? No question. I know what it means to me. But other members of my family are clearly working with different definitions. So, who gets to decide? Who’s right and who’s wrong?
No one. Everyone.
And that’s not very satisfying, is it? It would be so much easier if someone could be right and someone could be wrong. Then we’d all know, and we’d all expect the same thing(s).
There’s still a problem, though, and that’s the real heart of this post.
Expectations, even if we could all agree on them, are so often limitations.
When we create and cling to expectations of ourselves or life, all our energy and attention is on something we’ve made up or inherited, and that’s so small, compared to the complex, mysterious, terrible, beautiful, enigmatic thing we call life! Our expectations are like a narrow beam of light in a dark universe. We don’t think about all the possibilities we can’t see, all the things we can’t imagine. No, we’re focused on that small beam, and if what it illuminates doesn’t live up to our expectations of self and others, then we’re angry. We break connection. We punish ourselves. We punish others. We blame and shame and try to make events, people, marriages, vacations, new homes, jobs and ourselves be what we expect them to be.
You might have noticed this doesn’t work.
Every parent has their head in their hands at this point!
Now our expectations are a real problem, because we’ve made them so big and powerful we can’t see around them. We can’t step back and consider what is. We can only think about what isn’t. We forget our sense of curiosity and joyous possibility. We only think about how disappointed we feel, how let down we are, how things never work out. We nurse our humiliation and embarrassment about what we’d hoped for, and what other people think of our choices. We make up stories about how we can’t trust people, and we can’t trust life, and we become cynical, bitter and depressed.
We make ourselves and others very, very small.
But we can choose to take the power out of our expectations, just as we can choose to take the power out of our stories. We can search out our expectations and root them up like weeds. We can take our focus away from unmet expectations and look instead at what is present, what is happening, and dream about what might be possible. We can accept our expectations are about us, not anyone or anything else. If they’re not working, we’re the ones with the power to change them.
We have enormous power in one another’s lives. If every single one of us extended to just one other person the question, “What would you like to do?” instead of “You will…” or “You should…” or “You can’t…” what would the world be like? What if you were ten times bigger than the son/daughter/parent/spouse/lover/partner/friend others expect you to be? That doesn’t mean you have super powers. It means you unchain yourself from the limitation of expectations, yours and everyone else’s.
One of the greatest gifts I ever received was this statement: “I want you to be everything you are and nothing you aren’t.” What a tender, respectful, loving way to hold another human being and life! And the best thing about it? We can say it to ourselves. We can start where we have the most power, in the place where no one can stop us or limit us. I say it to you, now, whoever you are, wherever you are. No expectations. No limits.
Live everything you are, be everything you are and nothing you aren’t.
Pass it on.
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