I hope you spent this week questioning some of the expectations you have of yourself, especially in the areas where you struggle or where the inner critic is loud – and modifying them if they’re unreasonable or bordering on perfection.
Today I want to expand the topic by also asking you to look at the expectations you have of others. This could be your partner, your child, your parent. It could even be someone at work who you feel has failed to live up to the expectations you have of them.
The reality is that having expectations is a guaranteed route to unhappiness. We’re wired to compare, to focus on the negatives, to want more and better in our greed. There is no end to what we can expect of others, thus setting them up for failure, and ourselves for disappointment.
This doesn’t mean we can’t have aspirations. It’s natural to want others to be how we want them to be. A partner who listens more, a child who genuinely cares, a boss or colleague who is empathetic to our needs and concerns…
But when we start craving these qualities, it’s not just a wish or an aspiration. It’s often because we need to feel better about our own selves. We need others to be a certain way to fill a hole in our hearts, or cover our perceived inadequacies. We need them to prove ourselves in some way – as a parent, as a partner or as a manager or leader.
And this begins an unfortunate cycle where one pulls and the other pushes away. And eventually no one is better off for it. The reason is that we all tend to live up to the labels we’re given. When we point out the other person’s faults and failings on a consistent basis, it’s often much easier for them to go along with these labels instead to trying to fight or fix them. Research shows that in any healthy relationship, we need a ratio of 5 positive comments to 1 negative one. It creates the buffers that allow your need or expectation to land gently without making the other person defensive, while empowering them with the tools to work on their weaknesses.
If any of this feels true to you, take a step back so you disconnect yourself from the caustic cycle you may be in. Remind yourself that we cannot change others even if we spent a lifetime trying to do so. It takes a certain humility to acknowledge that we’re not a 100% right and the other person is not a 100% wrong. The truth always lies somewhere in between. And finding it is about broadening our perspective and opening up to it so we can say “I would rather they were this way, but that’s ok.”
One way of doing so is to shift the focus to 3 things that you appreciate in the other person. You may think there are none, but spend some time on it. However small, however inconsequential they may feel, what are 3 things you’re grateful for about them. Begin with 1 if 3 seems like a push. How would things be worse if they didn’t have this quality? Why are you grateful that they have it? It doesn’t need to affect you directly, but it may be something that you admire about them.
Another is to develop your muscles of empathy and compassion. This is especially helpful given your mind will try and race off to what you dislike about them. If it’s a child, it helps to think about their childhood. If it’s a partner, it helps to think about what drew you to them in the first place. And if it’s not an intimate relationship, you may even want to assume that the reason the person acts the way they do is because they’re hurting in some way. Even if this is not true, it helps take the edge off the emotion by changing your perspective about them.
Besides, you may not be that far off from the truth anyway. Every one of us is struggling with some challenge in our lives. As Frost has said “There is always pain in the room”. As human beings, we need to hold the space for each other so we can brave our challenges and rise despite them.
If there’s any one relationship in your life that needs work, spend some time this week thinking of the one thing you can do to make it better. You don’t have to change everything all at once. Just one thing that you’re ready to change. Focus on that. Take one little step at a time. And feel good about yourself as you do so.