“Expectation is the root of all heartache.” – William Shakespeare
I grew up an only child to two military parents. I was homeschooled and when my parents retired, we found ourselves on an isolated farm in the south. On the outside, I hid behind a mask of the “happy go-lucky” child, but on the inside, I felt alone. Although I was assigned female at birth, I felt a deep disconnect with my family's expectations of femininity. My anxieties were treated as trivial. I cringed when people expressed their expectation of me baring children, and a “hey guys, this topic is making me uncomfortable, please stop” was largely ignored.
I felt shoved into a box that didn’t fit me; trapped in a body I did not want nor asked for. I was expected to be grateful for this “gift.” I was not. I lived for years with Endometriosis and was expected to live with the chronic pain I felt every month.
In my early 20s I started to fall apart at the seams. I drank too much; I had meltdowns in the middle of my workplace. My family and friends rolled their eyes and when asked for help, I was ignored and told to “suck it up, cupcake.” Obviously, this is not a helpful thing to say, especially to someone having a mental health crisis.
My friends eventually dropped me. My toxic relationship with my boyfriend (of the time) crashed and burned in a bad way. I was labeled as “difficult” and “unlovable” by everyone in my life. I felt so little and helpless, spiraling down and down into the pit of depression.
It wasn’t until I was in a college class midway through the semester when I had an epiphany; “What am I doing? Why am I here? I don’t even know what this class is about!” I sat upright and stared at the blackboard and suddenly questions were swirling in my head. “Why am I here? Who is keeping me here? Suddenly, it was as if someone flipped the light on and said “the only one keeping you here is yourself. Nothing matters unless YOU make it matter! Let it all go and be yourself.”
What Are Expectations?
I use my own personal story above to highlight a problem we have all dealt with. While our lives may be vastly different, we all have to contend with expectations from both family and society. Throughout this article, we will discuss what these expectations are, where they come from, how they affect our daily lives, and how to ultimately decide what are reasonable and unreasonable expectations. But what does it mean to have expectations? Is it a good thing to have high expectations of ourselves and/or others or can it be detrimental to our relationships? What if we are not capable of meeting them?
In simple terms, an expectation is a belief that someone will or should achieve something. We all have expectations for ourselves and others. Likewise, people in our lives have expectations about us. This is natural; however, problems can arise when expectations become unrealistic or unhealthy. Let's examine where expectations come from, how they impact our lives, and how we can redefine our relationship with them.
Expectations from Family
Our families are often the first point in our lives where we encounter expectations. One of the most universal expectations is that children should be grateful for their parents. At face value, this is one that most people can agree on. However, this simple expectation can become unhealthy when it’s used to justify disrespect or mistreatment. “I brought you into this world! We put a roof over your head and food in your belly!” While in many cases these are truths, the expectation of gratitude can be twisted into guilt and instead wielded like a weapon.
My long-term client “Genevieve” (all names have been changed to keep my clients’ identities private) was kind enough to share her struggles with unrealistic familial expectations during a recent psychic reading:
“My family is a hot mess. As a child of a narcissistic mother, I was expected to be at her beck and call, and personal confidant starting at ages 5 or 6 and was assigned the role of the “family peacekeeper.” My sister, on the other hand, never had that mindset and so both she and my mother would have huge blowout fights, and I was expected to fix their relationship after every fight. But how could a child fix not just one but two human beings? How can I fix what is beyond my control? I was five! The pressures of being the people pleaser meant that in order for our family to have a good gathering, I had to be my mother’s personal servant to save my grandparents the stress of having to manage her narcissistic rages.”
From an early age we have expectations placed on us regarding behavior and our role in the family. Girls should avoid conflict while boys should rough house. Adolescent promiscuity is accepted or encouraged in young men but becomes a source of shame for young women. Men should be breadwinners and providers while women should prioritize children and their families. While society is moving away from these antiquated notions of gender-norms, we still have to acknowledge that often, these norms are first introduced and enforced at home.
Expectations from the Church
Just under half of families belong to some form of church or organized religion. Often religion can go hand in hand with family expectations and also introduce entirely new ones. The most basic expectation of any church is that you will adhere to the belief system and follow the church’s doctrine. Many houses of worship expect or require significant financial donations from their members. Congregants must atone for whatever sin that they may or may not have committed in their lives. Both family and the church make up a larger part of society, which can co-opt similar expectations and introduce entirely new ones.
I sat down and spoke with another of my regular clients, “Bianca,” about her experiences with the expectations of her religion and how she learned to let go and grow into her own comfort within it.
“I was raised Lutheran in the upper-Midwest.” She began, “While much of my congregation leaned towards a more stringent
Like many young adults exploring the world for the first time as they head off to higher education, Bianca’s exposure to different worldviews gave her the opportunity to examine her own faith and to think critically regarding the expectations that had been placed upon her from such an early age due to her relationship with the church.
Expectations from Society and Politics
While society is less of a singular source and more of an amalgamation of expectations, it’s important to think about how they affect us. Societal expectations can vary widely depending on which part of the world you are in, but there are some that are universal.
- Working hard and putting in long hours will lead to prosperity and security.
- You will settle down and have a family.
- Laws will be obeyed without question/citizens will be loyal to governments.
- A man must be the primary “breadwinner” for a family.
- Women must be primary caregivers.
Gender roles have long been some of the most pervasive expectations societies have placed on individuals. Boys are often denied opportunities to learn and develop emotional intelligence and when they do experience intense emotions, they are told to “Man Up!” This often perpetuates “toxic masculinity” and unless the cycle is broken, they inflict this same mindset onto their own children if they become fathers. Girls are molded into motherhood and taught to put their own wants and needs aside for those of their families.
A friend of mine, “Tyler,” shared his story which I thought would be perfect when discussing societal expectations related to marriage and sexuality. Tyler and Kylie got married in their early twenties and spent the next 5 years living a self-described “typical" life.
“After a few years though, I noticed our physical relationship started to change,” said Tyler. “We were always very open, talked about everything, but this particular topic was really hard to discuss. It put a lot of strain on us, and I thought I was doing something wrong. Finally, when Kylie felt ready to talk about it, she opened up that she was struggling with same-sex attraction and was finding it harder to be physical with me because of it.”
Kylie grew up in a conservative family and followed the all-to-familiar script she was expected to obey: Get an education, build a career, get married. Both her and Tyler had expectations they placed on each other without really knowing it.
“You just expect physical intimacy in a relationship,” Tyler said. “I think we both did. Aside from that, we had the perfect relationship, and we probably could have made it work. But it just didn’t feel right to try to stay together just because it’s what we were supposed to do. We made the difficult decision to split up. Thankfully, we’re still good friends and talk from time to time. It brings me a lot of joy to know we’re both living our best lives now, even though we took the long road to get here.”
When reflecting on lessons learned about expectations, Tyler had this to share:
“We both got lucky because while we were not meant to be together forever, we both grew from the experience. The big takeaway for me was people are always changing. That goes for your best friend, spouse, whoever. I think you have to expect that. I changed so much as a result of the entire experience. I always cared about LGBT+ issues, but after my marriage to Kylie, being an ally and advocate for the Queer community has a newfound meaning and importance. Given the challenges I’ve witnessed friends, family, and coworkers experienced in their lives, it’s made me approach my politics differently as well.”
As Tyler mentioned, politics factor into our expectations as they intertwine with society and become enshrined as law. How does politics affect your life? In recent years we have seen political decisions that have had far-reaching consequences for personal autonomy and freedom including but not limited to reproductive rights, transgender healthcare, and more. We are often raised in families that identify with certain political parties, but what if as we grow older, we don’t identify with the same political values with which we were raised?
Some common expectations we see relating to politics are:
- Party loyalty above all else.
- Voting for your political leader without question.
- Agreeing with the values of your party, even if you don’t 100% align with them.
- Seeing the other party as “the enemy.” It’s US vs. THEM which is an unfortunate development for all.
In the above examples of the family, church, society, and politics, we break down expectations as coming from distinct sources; in reality though, expectations are messy. They overlap and get reinforced; they get co-opted by different groups and changed. The one thing that is certain about expectations though is how they can profoundly affect our lives.
How Do Expectations Affect Our Lives?
It’s a fair assessment to say that, at some point in your life, you have felt guilty for failing to meet an expectation. Maybe you graduated at the top of your class from university but due to an ill-timed economic downturn, couldn’t find a job in your field and as a result, have to return to living with your parents. Perhaps your marriage is falling apart, and you feel defeated and worried about what friends and family will think. You might feel guilty for the realization that you don’t identify with your birth gender or if you love someone that your family deems “the wrong person,” whether that means gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, etc.
Being a People Pleaser
Aside from making us feel bad, unreasonable expectations can also affect our overall quality of life. It’s one thing to have expectations in ourselves or others, but what happens when they are not achievable? Trying to live up to the plethora of expectations placed upon us by family, friends, society, etc. can lead to unhealthy relationships. I’m sure we’ve all heard the term “people-pleaser.” Let’s break down some examples of how expectations are directly connected to this detrimental people pleasing behavior:
- Being overly agreeable to the point of being unable to say no.
- Taking on the responsibility of managing other people’s experiences.
- Internalizing others’ anger or disappointment.
- Avoid conflict at all costs, even when doing so is detrimental to your mental, physical, or emotional health.
- Seeking praise and apologizing often for things that are outside of your control.
It is part of the human condition to have some measure of disappointment when an expectation isn’t met, but chronic disappointment, to the point where it begins to affect our wellbeing, or the lives of others, should prompt us to evaluate healthy vs unhealthy expectations.
Breaking Free and Letting Go of Expectations
We can’t escape expectations, but that’s ok! What is within our power though, is to choose how they affect us. As a Psychic, it is my responsibility to be truthful with you. But honesty goes both ways. This means that you have to be honest with yourself. As you encounter an expectation or become aware of one that you previously didn’t recognize, you will need this self-honesty to identify if an expectation is reasonable/unreasonable or as I like to think of them, healthy and unhealthy. Let’s examine a few questions we can ask ourselves to help figure this out.
Can I do or accomplish this?
Does this make me feel uncomfortable?
Does this match my values? Do I agree with this?
Is this going to place a burden (physical, emotional, financial, etc.) on me?
Let’s keep the above prompts at the forefront of our mind as we look at a few scenarios.
- “It’s ok to look at my partner’s text messages…”
- Having privacy is a healthy expectation, but invading your partner’s privacy is unhealthy.
- “I expect my partner to be honest with me when we’re discussing our feelings.”
- It is a healthy expectation that communication will be honest in a relationship (however, this takes mindful practice and effort from both parties).
- “You can’t be friends with another woman/man, that’ll just lead to something else…”
- Friendships come in all shapes, sizes, genders, etc. It’s an unhealthy expectation that a partner shouldn’t have a friend just because they’re a different gender.
- “Work starts at 8am and you need to be ready to start your day right on time.”
- It’s perfectly acceptable and healthy for an employer to expect an employee to be on time. However, to never make exceptions for truly exceptional situations (heavy traffic or car breakdowns, health issues, deaths, etc.) is an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation to be made by an employer.
- “Let’s split up this work evenly amongst the team.”
- It’s a healthy expectation that a group of work-peers can split up a workload.
- “I want all of you to get to a 100% alignment on the next project phase.”
- While this might be well-intentioned, this might not be a healthy expectation. Conflict, when it is handled respectfully, is an expected part of working together with others.
- “If you’re not working to get ahead, you’re falling behind.”
- While grind/hustle culture has gained in popularity in the past decade, it's unhealthy to expect and try to maintain a constant state of achievement.
- “You didn’t call me yesterday? You know if I don’t hear from you every day I worry?!”
- Depending on your relationship with your family, daily check-ins may be healthy if they’re desired by all parties. But an absolute expectation that you MUST maintain communication with a family member is an unhealthy expectation.
- “Go on and give your grandma a hug and kiss.”
- Many of us grew up hearing something similar to this, but it’s not healthy to force children to show physical affection towards anyone. A child, no matter how big or small, has bodily autonomy and should be able to make that choice.
- “One day when you have kids of your own…”
- It’s an unhealthy expectation to place on anyone to bring life into the world.
- “I need to go talk with Pastor Smith so I can figure out what I should…”
- Depending on your faith, it can be a perfectly healthy expectation that the leaders in your church provide you with guidance. On the opposite of this though, it can be an unhealthy one if this guidance is absolute and does not allow deviation and personal autonomy.
- “The more money you give, the more God hears your prayers!”
- Tying financial contributions to access to faith, levels of enlightenment, church services, etc. is unhealthy. While some faiths enshrine tithing as a part of their church culture, this can be used to take advantage of people who are vulnerable and seeking spiritual meaning. See my article on cults vs the occult for more information on this.
- “Hey, can I tell you something I’ve never told anybody?”
- It is a simple and healthy belief that trust and privacy exists between friends.
- “I can’t believe you don’t like Soccer!? You’ve gotta come to a game with me!”
- Most people enjoy sharing their interests with friends. It can be an unhealthy expectation though to expect all of your friends to share all of the same interests as you do.
- “What do you mean you can’t help me move this weekend? I know it’s last minute, but I thought we were friends?”
- Having conditions on friendships, such as always being available, isn’t healthy. While it’s important to help our friends, it’s unhealthy when friends use guilt to extract favors or assistance.
- “I’m going to take a mental health day today; I deserve to take it easy.”
- To expect to take personal time when you need it is a healthy expectation. The only person who knows what you need is you! Don’t feel guilty about it either, just enjoy yourself!
- “I know it’s your day off, but we’re short-staffed and need you in right away.”
- While this can vary depending on how often it occurs, it’s generally unhealthy for anyone to make expectations about someone’s time away from the workplace.
- “That investment seems like a good idea on paper, but I just get a weird feeling about it.”
- It’s hard to explain intuition, but one thing is certain: it’s usually a good idea to follow your gut! Also, it’s a perfectly healthy expectation. You don’t always need to use logic and sense to qualify a decision!
- “I can’t believe I made a mistake like that. I’m such an idiot!”
- This is one of the most important things we all need to remember. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves. Forgiveness and self-acceptance can help us in letting go of mistakes.
Being Happy With Yourself
Expectations are so pervasive in our lives that it’s impossible to escape them. But let’s revisit a few of the personal stories I shared earlier and see how it’s possible to do just that!
Genevieve continued her story about how she overcame her family’s expectations and her own tendency to be “a people pleaser.”
“I was suffering from severe depression and burnout and had lost interest in my hobbies. I felt I couldn’t enjoy anything anymore. I withdrew from the world. But thanks to the support of my therapist, friends, and my favorite psychic (Phoebe), I found the will to put my foot down. I have put up boundaries after letting go of the expectations my family had placed on me. I have also learned to not expect my family to change; that’s not something I can control. Since letting go, I live life to the fullest!”
As my client “Bianca” continued the story of her faith, she too had a positive realization about expectations.
“I went through a period of unbelief that lasted for quite a while. I identified as atheist-agnostic and felt hostile toward the Christian faith I had been raised in. However, after a series of hardships in my life, I found myself returning to my faith on my own terms. I now believe that my relationship with the Divine is much healthier than the relationship I was raised with, because I had to let go of the expectations of my family and the church and now do what feels right between God and me. The only expectation I have now is that I’m true to myself and God. So far, he hasn’t struck me down yet! Ha ha!”
There’s a commonality in the stories that I’m sharing. At some point, we have to acknowledge that we can only control our own expectations. In the same vein, we have the power to control how others' expectations affect us. This was an extremely important realization in my own life which helped me to break free from my family expectations, relationship troubles, and school stress. Let’s flashback to that time in my life.
I was right in the middle of a lecture when it all clicked. “Why am I here? Who is keeping me here?!” Suddenly, it was as if someone shined the spotlight on me and I knew then that it was I who had control over myself; not my family, friends, boyfriend, just me. I didn’t have to sit here. I could get up and leave and if there were any repercussions, I’ll just have to accept it and figure it out. It was incredibly freeing.
So, I packed my bag, stood up, and walked right out of that classroom and never looked back. I realized at that moment that I had been living under the crushing expectations of everyone in my life; my family, friends, boyfriend, society, etc. by walking out of that classroom, I’d given myself permission to live my life to the fullest.
My family was furious at what I had done and begged me to return. I shook my head and told them:
"No. I’m not going to do that. I’m not happy. I haven’t been happy in a very long time and I’m over it. If I ever go back, it’ll be on my own terms.”
While it took almost a decade, I eventually went back on my own terms, and more importantly with my own expectations, and completed my degree! Since then, I have married a caring and supportive man who embraced my psychic gifts. This has helped me to live a more authentic life; one where I can truly be myself as a queer person.
In my article, Self-Awareness Practices To Learn And Unlearn Your Self-Identity, I actually touched on this topic. An important aspect of letting go of unrealistic expectations is to be self-aware enough to know that they have been placed upon us and to be mindful enough to break out of the conditioned desire to meet those goals. Following these practices plus the Self-Prompts from this article helps us to differentiate expectations into healthy and unhealthy or reasonable and unreasonable.
If there is one piece of advice I sincerely hope you will take from this article dear reader, it is that you have the power to choose to let go of expectations; this applies to the ones placed on you by others and also the ones you place on yourself. You have the power to break free of unhealthy expectations and embrace the healthy ones to live your best life!