I was reading through a wedding planning book this past weekend and came across this quote: you’re not broken, you’re human. It was in the context of discussing the disappointment we experience when our expectations do not match the reality of our situation, particularly with weddings. This quote really resonated with me, because I think so many of us have piles of unrealistic expectations and ideas of what life “should” be like that make us feel that our lives do not match up to some preset ideal. So often we feel broken or wrong in some way because we do not match society, our friends, the ideals in movies or TV, or our families view of what life should be like.
Expectations are a common topic in my office with my clients because often our unrealistic expectations lead to unpleasant emotions and relationship conflict. Big events and topics such as marriage, relationships in general, having children, careers, etc. seem to be areas where we judge ourselves the most harshly by others’ expectations and standards. I believe that this has a lot to do with how much we are told by others what things need to be like in order to be successful, happy, the best, etc. While some of these messages certainly come from our families, friends, and messages we heard throughout our childhood, they also come from what we witness in the media. The media seems to infiltrate everything about our lives and is just so easily accessible for people to use it as a point of comparison. There is an entire industry around getting people to believe that they need more things, beauty, money, etc. in order to be truly happy, beautiful, and worthy. While I appreciate our culture, I think that the consumerism that we are all exposed to has a dramatically negative impact on our mental health and overall well-being.
Another huge area that I find people experience a lot of feelings of unworthiness, judgment, and self-criticism is when our expectation of how we think we “should” feel in certain situations does not match how we actually do feel. For example, one of the most confusing times for people is when they have conflicting or uncertain feelings about big life events such as graduation, a promotion at work, having a child, a relationship, retirement, etc. Many people seem to think that these events only will come with positive or happy feelings. Then when they begin feeling other feelings, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, upset, sadness – the conclusion is that they are somehow defective and wrong in the way they feel. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with feeling however you feel in a given situation. Our feelings are what they are and they often can be surprising and different than expected. Once we stop shaming ourselves about them, we can use them more effectively as cues to our environment and lives.
I still remember one of the most difficult transitions in my life, graduating from graduate school. I remember that most of the people around me assumed that I was excited and happy but the reality was that I was totally freaked out about the next steps in my life. Even as a psychologist, it felt uncomfortable to have others assume what my feelings were and then to either go along with it or correct them. It’s hard to tell people we are not feeling what we are “supposed” to feel! I think it is important for all of us to take stock of the fact that there are no right or wrong feelings in a given situation, there are just feelings. Some may be unexpected but they are all there to help us learn something, even if they are uncomfortable or unwelcome to us.
Often I find that our expectations serve as ways we attempt to make a complicated world simpler. Unfortunately, this only alienates us further from ourselves and can shame us for experiencing the world in the way that we do. Learning to untangle our internal values, feelings, expectations, and preferences from what we have internalized from others is an important skill to begin developing. Re-defining our expectations is something that I work with my therapy clients towards and can benefit all of us dramatically. A fantastic step is simply to acknowledge what you are experiencing and that it is a disappointment related to unrealistic expectations.
Tips in working through unexpected emotions and managing expectations:
- Acknowledge your emotion or your experience as it is as well as identify how it is not living up to your expectations.
- Try to evaluate what the expectation could be related to in your life. This is typically a fear or doubt that relates to our self-worth. For example, when I was feeling like I “should” have been excited about graduating rather than nervous and downright terrified, this related to a lot of doubt about my ability to sustain my career and be financially successful. This could also be something about what others have done that we assumed was the “right” way (Ex: I’m having kids because my parents did and other people do).
- Once you understand where your expectation comes from you can evaluate if it is an expectation you want to hold for yourself and if it fits with your value system.
- Once you understand and can identify the feeling you are having, invite it in and try to understand what it is there to show or teach you.
Remember: Fear, anxiety, uncertainty, discomfort, sadness are necessary parts of change, even positive change. Lean into these feelings! You will be amazed at what will happen when you stop allowing discomfort to guide your choices and decisions. It can be so empowering!
The most important point of this blog is to remember that there are no hard and fast rules in life. As much as we want to make rules to organize ourselves (this is what we are programmed to do!), life can really be anything we want it to be and it does not need to match up to preconceived ideas. If we can surrender to this and let go of some of our expectations, I think many of us would experience less disappointment and more overall life satisfaction. Just remember that when your life, experience, or feelings is not measuring up to your expectations that you are not broken, you are simply human.
(The book referenced is a fantastic reality based wedding planning book called:
A Practical Wedding: Creative Ideas for Planning a Beautiful, Affordable, and Meaningful Celebration and can easily be found on Amazon).