The Thing About Expectations

Expectations that we have for ourselves and others can get tricky. This is because most of our disappointments, frustrations, and heartbreaks stem from some expectation not being met by someone or something. But aren’t expectations necessary to some extent, or should we abandon them completely?

The “zen” approach to expectations is to simply not have them at all. If you go through life without placing expectations on people and events, there will be no disappointment. Whatever happens, happens, and you’ll be ok because you didn’t have some other result you were hoping for to compare it to.

There’s obviously a lot of truth to this. Think back to random days where you were just going about running errands or what-not and then were pleasantly surprised by a spontaneous text or phone call from a dear friend or family member. You weren’t expecting them to reach out to you, but they did and it was lovely hearing from them. Maybe they even invited you out to eat or spend some time together.

Now imagine if you had placed the expectations that these same people “should” have called you, but they didn’t. By not expecting them to reach out to you, you saved yourself from being disappointed if there was no contact while allowing for a wonderful surprise if they did.

Pretty straightforward, right?

I’ve found this to be the case in many situations. When I let go of roles people are “supposed” to play based on whatever notions and rules I’ve created in my head, life seems to flow more easily and I experience less negative feelings.

There is a flip side, however, that I think is worth mentioning. There are certain expectations I believe we can consider “reasonable”. For example, I expect someone I have some form of relationship with (family, friend, etc) to uphold their word. There is also an expectation that this circle of people I am a part of will respect my boundaries.

I think we can all agree that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be treated fairly, kindly, and with respect by your circle, however you define it. But what happens when those expectations aren’t met?

This is a dilemma I have found myself in a few times. What I’ve found to be a helpful first step is to try and analyze what expectation is not being met, why is it in place, and is it reasonable.

Oftentimes, we will discover that we just wanted people to behave the way we wanted them to. Our way is obviously the best one, so they should follow it. This is fairly easy to get over once we become aware.

What isn’t so easy is when it feels like a trust has been broken. A friend promised that they’d repay you, contact you, make plans with you, wouldn’t share your secrets, etc. You then find out the promise, whether explicit or not, was not respected.

This can hurt very much. There is a sense of betrayal in the relationship and a feeling that you are less than, because if you were worthy or enough, promises would have been upheld.

So were we wrong to have expectations?

The answer is a grey area, at least to me. Yes, because if we didn’t have any expectations, we would not have felt betrayed as much, if at all. No, because I don’t believe it is wrong to have standards and boundaries for your relationships with other people.

So who bears the responsibility? You for having expectations, or the other person for not meeting them? I think you know the answer to this, even if it sucks. Ultimately, the responsibility is your own.

“How is that possible? They broke a promise or didn’t treat me fairly!”

I know, I know.

The responsibility is yours (ours) because their behavior towards you is a good indicator of where their values are. It doesn’t necessarily make them bad people, but you have proof of how they behave and treat others. It is now up to you to make an educated decision on whether to continue to include them in your circle or to create some distance. The call is ultimately your own to make.

Some things to reflect on, however:

  • Was this a one time mistake on their part?
  • Did they apologize?
  • Did you (respectfully and compassionately) confront them to discuss this perceived lapse?
  • What was their answer?
  • Do you think it will happen again?
  • How much damage was actually done?
  • Are you sure you treat them according to your own expectations, or are you being a bit hypocritical?

These are just some of the questions you can ask yourself.

If this is repeated behavior and/or their apology doesn’t sound sincere, you will have a pretty straightforward (though maybe not easy) decision to make.

Please ensure that you are treating people to the same standards and boundaries you hold for yourself. Treat others as you would like to be treated.

Remember that the way people speak to you and treat you is more indicative of their relationship to themselves than it is to you.

Sometimes people are just not accountable, responsible, or even kind. You can acknowledge and accept this without judging them as a bad person. They just might not be the right person for you and your circle.

To summarize, I think it is ok to have measured expectations on how we would like to be treated. In other words, certain expectations are what can make up your boundaries.

Take the time to regularly reflect and make sure you aren’t projecting any unreasonable expectations on others. Also be careful not to set unhealthy expectations on yourself.

When expectations aren’t met, observe and accept. Then go forward making educated and healthy decisions.

Beyond healthy boundaries for yourself, try to minimize the expectations you have on yourself, others, and the world at large.

Comment below to share your thoughts and experiences with expectations!


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