the most confining expectations are our own


I have been working on managing expectations for almost fifteen years now.

That was the spring that my health fell apart and I realized that there was only so much I could ask of myself, that asking more would eventually catch up to me, and that being more gracious to myself went a long, long way towards healthiness and happiness.

But it is not just my expectations of myself that I have been managing.

I learned another lesson the spring that my body gave out.  I was the Director of Student Activities at my school which meant that I was over everything extracurricular (but non-athletic) on campus.  One day my student body president did something boneheaded that landed him in some trouble.  I can no longer remember what he did but I do remember calling him into my classroom to talk about it, giving him my “I expect more from you as a student leader” spiel, seeing his eyes well up with tears, and then hearing him say, “When you have a kid, he’s going to kill himself.”

It sucker-punched me.  The air went out of the room and his mouth rounded into an O.  We both stood there, shocked, the conversation over.  Somehow, we wrapped things up; he made his way into the hall, disappearing into the teenage bodies moving between classes.

The next day, I found a card and flowers on my desk.  He begged me to forgive him, blamed his thoughtless comment on the fact that he was just emotional because he had disappointed me and himself, insisted that my hypothetical children would be lucky to have me and lucky that I had high expectations of them. And that was all really welcome.  But something lingered for me– I became incredibly aware of my expectations of others, especially of young people.  I still have high standards, but, now, they are couched with a sense of reality and lots of grace and compassion even amidst the standards.  I have a greater sense of what is realistic to expect of people and what I hope from them and recognize that there is a space in between where life happens.  And I try my hardest to make room for that in my mind, heart, and interactions with people.

But it is not just my expectations of others that I have been managing.

Lately, what I have been doing is having conversations with lots of people with whom I work or love about their expectations of themselves.  Because, boy, do we expect a lot of ourselves.  We expect ourselves to do everything perfectly.  The first time. And to do it all efficiently, effortlessly.

And I see myself in those people because I have been there, and it makes me panic for these people whom I so admire and for whom I want the best.  Because I don’t want the reason why life is hard and joyless to be them.  I know what it is like to take myself and everything I do so damn seriously and to feel that everything is so darn urgent that pleasure and satisfaction disappear.  I also know that being held hostage by your standards is no way to live, because you are always waiting– waiting for the other shoe to drop or for breathing room to appear.  And the truth is that you have to create the breathing room in your mind and approach because life is always going to be full, it is always going to be brimming, it is always going to ask for more.

Given that our expectations can be the very thing that sabotage us, here are five starter steps to managing- your own and other people’s- expectations.

Get Perspective.  When things get busy, I tend to fixate on a certain date.  If I can just get to July 22, I tell myself, I’ll have breathing room.  Then July 22nd arrives and I realize, that, oh wow, things got busy while I wasn’t looking.  Life is always going to be busy.  It is just the nature of adulthood.  So, you have a responsibility- to yourself and to the universe because the universe needs you but it needs you to not be spread thin, it needs you to be your potent best so you can do what you are meant to be doing in this worldto manage your responsibilities, let some go, and figure out where your energy should be.  Spend some time figuring out what you want to be doing, what you don’t want to be doing, and do the work that right sizes your life to what fills you up, allows you to do your best stuff, and gives others the grace to do their best stuff (without thinking, “I am the only person who can be room mom.”).

Prioritize.  There is always more that can be done, at both work and home.  And so we think that if we put more hours in, we will magically pass the threshold to where things aren’t too much, overwhelming, there’s not more to do and we can just put our feet up on the desk or hammock and exhale.  There are pockets of time where that is a possibility but as a general state of being, maybe not always.  And so you have to prioritize things.  Really pay attention to your flow, figure out how much you can get done in a day or week, and then plan your time by that model.  When you are doing that planning, take into account how much you can realistically get done and then expect a smidge less of yourself.  Not because I believe you are going to do less than your best but because life happens and things are going to pop up and you need the room to do that.  My Monday mornings ALWAYS blow up.  Always.  And so I try to make my Monday to do list a little bit smaller than other days because I know that how I feel at the end of Monday has an impact on the week.  So plan smart- with priorities and time sensitive things in mind.  Don’t make something time sensitive if it doesn’t have to be.  Put it on your “when I get to it” list– just being realistic about things goes a long way in managing your expectations of yourself.

Remember it is all just information. We can take everything so damn seriously.  We rush to write a report, send it off, and then reread it later and spot a little typo. “I am an idiot!”  We shout.  Except you are not and calling yourself an idiot doesn’t help you at all.  So let’s stop that and just remember that everything– whether we finished all of our to do list items, whether or not we wrote a typo less report, etc,- is just information.  If we included a typo, it might mean that we were too close to the report to spot typos and should get someone else to proof or that we really were in a hurry because Bob needed it before the end of the day or that we were tired or that, oops, we just made a mistake which, by the way, isn’t a reflection of our character.  Things that are different that what we expected are not a reflection of our character, but they can give us valuable information if we do not load them with shaming logic.  Give up the shame.  Go neutral in your information gathering.

Provide yourself relief.  Know what your stuff is in taking things to far and provide yourself some relief.  I absolutely cannot let email sit.  It’s ridiculous but I just hate the idea of someone out there waiting for me.  But I can’t answer every single email that I get as soon as I get it all the time.  So I have to started to explain that I am MIA in out of office messages when I am away from the office for meetings or shoot a quick email reply saying, “I can have something to you by such and such date, is that okay” so that I can manage other people’s expectations while really managing my own.

I also ask for or give myself the room I need.  Last week, I was on vacation.  Before I left, I asked the Circle de Luz Program Manager, who I supervise as Board Chair, if she had enough work without needing anything from me while I was away.  She did so we made a deal that she would only be in touch about time sensitive matters or good news.  She held everything else until after I returned.  In addition, I cut myself some slack.  I wanted to write a new blog post for every day last week and schedule them to be published while I was gone but the reality was that I had work that I had to get done before I traveled and my blog is my baby, a little treat for me to be in community with you but it isn’t time sensitive the way that other things were before I traveled.  I released my expectation of writing new content for every day last week and republished 3 old blog posts.  I figured that if that offended anyone, then we weren’t every really in community with one another in the first place and I knew that my community (you, amazing reader, thank you!) would understand.  Think about the way you can take things too far.  Do you have a tendency to work late?  Set a daily alarm to go off at a reasonable stopping point and make yourself walk out the door.  Charge your cell phone in a different room than your bedroom.  Put your phone and computer to bed well before you put yourself to bed.  Create space for yourself.  It will serve you well.

Communicate with others.  A lot of times the pressure I put on myself is because of my perception of other people’s expectations (the truth is that my perception of their expectations is often higher than their actual expectations).  By managing other people’s perceptions, I grant myself some relief from my own expectations (of those expectations).  Use your out of office reply with abandon.  I use it even if I am not out of town but am just in meetings for all the work time I have available that day.  Put your work hours in your signature line of your emails and on your voice mail.  Give yourself an extra day when you are telling someone when you’ll get something to them.  By managing what you perceive as other people’s expectations, you actually give yourself relief from your own.

Do you struggle with managing your own expectations?  When does that come up for you?  How do you manage them?

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One response to “the most confining expectations are our own”

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