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  • Writer's pictureBrooke Miller

What Did You Expect?!?

Maybe you've heard the expression "Our expectations determine our experience". I have certainly found this to be true. What I so often find is that expectations can cause undue negativity and tension -- within ourselves and between us & others, especially when our expectations are unconscious or unspoken.

For instance, if you expect the person entering a store just ahead of you to hold the door open and they don't, you will likely feel irritated, judgmental and morally superior because you believe it's common courtesy. "They SHOULD hold the door -- that's the polite thing to do! It's what I always do!" But if you don't expect them to hold the door for you, there's no slight. No drama. Just peace. If you don't expect them to hold the door and they do, it's a bonus and you feel appreciation. Notice your reaction to this small hypothetical example. Now extrapolate to a larger issue, with someone close to you. Unmet expectations can cause serious conflict in relationships.

Are all expectations bad? Of course not. Expectations can offer a form of accountability -- for ourselves and for others. Agreements are made with the expectation that both parties will hold up their end of the bargain. Progress, growth, connection and trust are built on expectations.

On the dark side of expectations, however, judgment follows close behind. And things can get tricky real fast when we are unaware of our expectations. Unconscious expectations come from our beliefs and biases about what's right and wrong. Sometimes there's really nothing wrong with the belief or the PRINCIPLE we hold, but we may apply it unrealistically. Expecting a friend to show up and help on moving day only makes sense if they are dependable. We protest, "But I'm always there for him when he needs me!" We get into trouble when we rigidly hold on to the principle of what SHOULD happen rather than look at the person or situation from a place of truth and what IS. Actions, history and patterns speak louder than words.

What can you realistically expect from your partner, your child, yourself? One area to explore is the reason for the failed expectation; is it due to unwillingness or inability? If I expect my 10 year old to focus independently and complete her homework without any help or breaks, I am going to be frustrated every time. If I express my frustration to her by yelling, she is likely to internalize it to mean there's something wrong with her, she's not OK. When these messages and experiences are repeated, she will integrate this belief into her self concept, "I am not good enough". But the truth is, it's beyond her ability. It's simply beyond her developmental level. It's my unrealistic expectation that is the problem.

I see it all the time in my work with couples too. When a wife expects her husband to articulate his feelings the way she would, she is likely to feel disappointed and disconnected. The truth is, he is wired and socialized differently and needs support to express emotions verbally; she may also need support to read him more accurately. When a husband expects his wife's sex drive and sexual response to match his, he is likely to feel frustrated and rejected. The truth is, testosterone drives sexual appetite and men obviously create more testosterone than women; arousal is naturally different for men and women and is highly unique to each individual. When partners expect the sexual intensity of the first few months or years to continue indefinitely, without intention or effort -- the result is often fear that something is inherently wrong with the relationship. The truth is, they have progressed beyond the infatuation stage and it's time to start making a more concerted effort to communicate and connect.

When we unconsciously expect our deepest desires to be met without expressing them, this is our infant self showing up, wishing to turn back the clock to a place in time when all of our needs were sensed and met without our conscious awareness or ability to articulate them.

Having feelings, needs and desires is part of being human.

Owning and expressing our feelings, needs and desires is part of being an adult.

Meeting some of our own needs is also part of being an adult.

When we are frustrated, we may benefit from exploring the question "What was I expecting in this situation?" We often set ourselves up by unconsciously expecting the world to mirror our perception of reality. It is more true that each of us has our own subjective reality, and together we create a shared reality. With self awareness, communication and personal responsibility, we can turn our expectations into requests; THEN we have the greatest chance of our expectations being met.

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