When I was 21-years old, I let my Dad take my hard-earned babysitting money and pick out my first car for me. He felt that was his role as my father, and I let him. Not surprisingly he selected a grandfatherly, copper colored, 5 door behemoth instead of the cute 5-speed Toyota. Though I had enough money to purchase a car, I did not have money for any repairs that the car might need if it were a lemon. The potential for “I told you so” and the guilt for picking a lemon were beyond what I was willing to endure, so I acquiesced to my Dad’s expectation that he should make this decision that should’ve been mine.
This is a small example of how I succumbed to another’s expectation regarding the choices in my life. And it seems crazy to let someone else make a decision for you, as an adult, about your own life or money. Yet it seems to happen all the time, and involving both big and small decisions. Each time we let others decide for us our choices, priorities or how we feel, we are giving away bits of our power and ourselves. It’s important to note that sometimes we are asked to give away our power, sometimes we do so because of a perceived request or expectation.
Not all expectations are bad. You may know from the education and child development literature that children rise to meet high expectations, so we should continue to have them. Expecting children to be well-behaved, smart and talented sets an appropriately high bar, as long as the standards are flexible enough to accommodate their individuality. So, in some cases, having high expectations is a positive, good thing that helps others achieve their potential.
But expectations can be harmful when they are unreasonable, unrealistic, or reflect the wishes or emotional state of the parent rather than what’s right for the child (this distinction is often difficult to determine). For example, a parent may expect their child to be a star athlete or popular, when the child hates athletics or is painfully shy. If a parent is a perfectionist, they may believe that they must be perfect to feel OK. They may either model that expectation for their children, and/or expect their children to be perfect too. Perfectionists may be overly defensive or overly sensitive to criticism, depending on whether their denial of their infallibility is directed outward or inward.
Unfortunately, as children, we do not have the life experience to know or understand the impact of these expectations or even whether they are fair or reasonable. Therefore, that message is often internalized and then subconsciously defines the child’s reality. Such expectations can come from friends, peers, family members, or from cultural expectations, they need not necessarily come from a parent. When such expectations are present at such a young age, the child simply accepts them as a fact of life, that they must give away their dreams and their sense of self to feel OK, acceptable, and safe too.
Poor me. Poor baby. Poor us. We were so mistreated.
Yes, it’s UNFAIR. But at some point, we must decide for ourselves in what we choose to believe and what values and principles we subscribe to. Children don’t have that self-awareness or maturity, but as we adults we can and should know better.
We don’t have to keep these expectations in our subconscious and let their invisible strings rule our lives. We do not have to believe or internalize our own or others’ unfair expectations. We don’t have to give power to someone else’s unkind words or expectations.
Just because someone tells me that I should be smart/subservient/deferential because I’m Asian/female/middle-aged/whatever does not make it true. It’s easy for me to laugh it off because it’s of course ridiculous. But what happens when someone tells me something that I actually believe? If I subconsciously believe I’m inferior to other people, and then if I’m told that I’m stupid or incompetent, then those words HURT. I will feel terrible about myself, hate myself, and believe I’m unworthy instead of just saying “whatever, dude.” When I do, I give my power to someone else and reaffirm my self-limiting beliefs.
In other words, the harsh words, criticisms and judgments of others only have power if you believe them already.
The same problem may arise if you believe someone else is judging or criticizing you, even if they have not said a word. The tone of their voice, their choice of words, their facial expression might convey to you their disappointment. There are at least two problems with this scenario. First, if we believe that the world is judgmental and critical, we will see judgment and criticism everywhere, whether it is present or not (previously discussed in Our Self-(Un)fulling Reality). You may have completely misread that person’s thoughts and intentions because the judgment and criticism you were feeling were coming from you. Second, if you don’t believe their so-called judgment, then it would not upset you anyway (same as above). So, now you’ve given away your power to the voice from your past and blaming your feelings on someone else.
The real and perceived expectations of others can prevent us from living authentically, guided by our own passion and principles. If we let them. Those expectations can impede our ability to form authentic relationships with others, for living selflessly means we are not living as our true Self. Those expectations can create a heavy and sad burden that confines our lives within the boundaries of our fear instead of our joy. If we let them.
There is an up-side to living according to someone else’s expectations: you never have to take responsibility for your own actions and choices. This is the safer choice if the fear of failure or disapproval is devastating to you.
But at what cost?
Ask yourself: what is wrong with failure? Failure is necessary if you are to take risks, and you must take risks to be successful. And I’ve learned someone will always disapprove of me no matter how hard I try to please them. Rather, it’s their responsibility to please themselves.
Me? I now make my own choices and suffer my own consequences. I’m financially independent now, so I’ll never let someone buy my car for me again. I no longer subscribe to the unhealthy fantasy of control and perfection, whether coming from someone else or my inner demons. I’d rather live on my own terms at whatever cost, rather than jump through endless hoops, real or perceived, from others. My life may not be perfect, but at least it’s MINE.