Becky has a theory – this one does not advocate breaking any of the ten commandments or blaming the pope for stuff. The theory goes that every conflict and many negative emotions come from one’s expectations not being met. And all sense of security, contentment and bliss occurs when one’s expectations are being met or exceeded.
Our expectations are kept on a mental list, whether we realize it or not, the theory goes, and when we’re upset we need to stop and figure out what expectation on our list is not being met, decide if it’s a reasonable expectation and get rid of it if it’s not.
There was a time when I was very angry at my former record label. I didn’t even know why at times. Years of reflection have brought clarity to us both though. They sometimes expected me to be Artist A and I couldn’t be. I expected them to be Label B and they couldn’t be. Neither of us were getting what we expected from the other.
A friend of mine is married to an alcoholic. She expected when she said “I do” that her husband would always be the even-keeled, kind and healthy man she’d always known. The courtship years set expectations for her marriage. Now, he expects her to forgive his bad behavior again and again forever without any negative consequences.
This morning my three year-old flipped out and started yelling at me because she wanted a skirt, not the shorts I was attempting to put on her. I expected her to be rational and understand the impossibility of wearing a skirt when the skirts are in the washing machine. She expected me to grant her wish and to tolerate her loud disrespect. Instead, I granted her nakedness alone in time-out and stripped her of her blanket for the day. She did not expect this. She was not happy. Nor was I.
But not only, according to the wise Becky, does not meeting expectations cause strife, but meeting and exceeding them – or lowering them so they can be met or exceeded – causes bliss.
Someone from my former label asked me to lunch a while ago and, over some chips and cheese, apologized for not meeting my expectations. I apologized for not making my expectations clearer and not changing them when I should have. He then told me all the kind encouraging confidence-bolstering things I needed to hear for years. I didn’t expect that. Peace broke out. Empathy and forgiveness too.
I don’t know what my friend and her husband will do next. I have little wisdom for her. But I’m certain that if her husband, by some miracle, decides he’s merely human and can’t beat addiction on his own and he gets some medical help and sobers, well, I’m sure that would exceed his wife’s expectations and bring much needed happiness and security to a marriage that is lacking it this morning. For this to happen he’ll have to redefine normal, change his expectations of himself and she’ll have to stick to hers.
After the skirt meltdown, Becky came home from the gym and I was relieved of my parenting duties to get to work. I was in no frame of mind to work well though so instead I drove around for a few minutes to calm down and think. I realized my mistake – expecting a three year-old to act like a seven year-old or like me. And I knew I was more harsh than I needed to be in reacting to my little girl. So I drove by Smoothie King and bought myself a massive drink and three little ones too. I handed them out when I got home and took Penelope aside to make amends. I reassured her that I love her and reminded her how smart she is and how many great words she knows and asked her to use them instead of yelling at me when she’s angry next time. She wasn’t expecting that.
It’s become a joke in our house. Becky will occasionally say, when she’s feeling stressed out, “I’m lowering my expectations.” It stings just a bit when you’re the one she’s deciding to expect less from, and I usually am, but it’s freeing too. And knowing that she’s realized she’s expecting too much proves she’s doing work work on our relationship and not just expecting me to do it all and that, ironically, motivates me to do all I can too. And when she lowers her expectations it always makes me stop and look over my own lists. I often realize how unrealistic I’m being with my own expectations and I inevitably start crossing things off my lists.
I’m doing that this morning. I’m feeling overwhelmed. I’m not content at all. I’m uneasy, tense, on edge. Not for long, just the last few days. I suspect it’s because I’ve had so little time to work and the time I’ve had has been constantly interrupted by technology problems or kids or my own lack of concentration and my inner critics. I’m deciding to lower my expectations of my technology and my family and myself – some of my expectations are unrealistic anyway: Who can work at home with three children and never be interrupted or write 2,000 perfect words every day? I’m making a new calendar and a list as soon as I post this – a list of things I can realistically get done today and every day this week to claw may way back to caught up.
What do you do to get a grip when you feel like you’re losing it? To reclaim contentment when it’s slipped away? To make peace when the bullets are flying?