Feel · Think

Dealing with Expectations and Being Too Hard on Myself

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

S: I’m not handling things as well as I wish to.

S: I’ve been hard on myself. Demanding and with many expectations. 😦

I: I wonder how are your expectations for yourself too?

I: Is it useful to write down all these expectations and see whether they’re realistic? Sometimes when they play around in our heads it’s more overwhelming and fuzzy.

Expectations are a collection of beliefs we impose on ourselves based on messaging we received growing up that delineated what was good or bad, right or wrong, or true or false. These messaging that we received initially in their original form had a context, but they become expectations when we take them out of their original meanings and continue to impose them on ourselves in changing circumstances.

For example, I expect excellence from myself. I remembered attending a church camp when I was 17 years old, called “The Excellent Church” that extolled the virtues of giving 110% in all that you do. Besides that, I was often praised when I produced a stellar piece of work. So in those original contexts, the idea of excellence may have “fitted” the situation. Yes, the theme of the camp was excellence, so they rightly emphasized its importance, and yes, sometimes, I produced terrific pieces of work and get praised for them.

But it becomes an expectation when thereafter, in whatever I do, I continue to want myself to give 110% and produce works of perfection, regardless. Because the messaging was taken out of context, it possibly did not fit new situations and, because of that, became “unrealistic” or no longer matching to their new reality. For example, when I have a lot of work to do and/or have no interest in that work and/or am not in the best of conditions, and yet I still expect myself to give 110% in all that I do.

Let me give another example of the societal expectation of a successful life. There is a messaging we receive as we grow up that by certain ages we should have hit certain milestones, such as finding our financial independence from our parents by the time we graduate from college or having a stable income and progression in our career by the time we are 30, or having a family by the time we are 40, or retiring happily by the time we are 60 or 70. We had collected these messaging in their specificities – we know of individuals who attained these ‘targets.’ However, they become expectations when we do not consider our own unique situations and still impose these targets on ourselves.

How do we identify our expectations? We will know them by how we feel when we fall short of them. We will also know them when we compare ourselves to others who supposedly have met these standards. For example, when I was learning a new activity like freediving, my course mates easily achieved a depth of 12 m on their first day of trying. Whereas I struggled to get to that depth, and I feel bad about myself. In this instance, I was comparing myself to someone else’s unique and contextualised performance and applying it out of context to my own situation. And because I do not meet up to their standard, I feel let down by myself.

If expectations are indeed generalized and out-of-context impositions we have on ourselves based on what we were told by others or what we observed of others, they should be questioned and deconstructed. This will help us see whether they are unrealistic or unreasonable for our unique situations. This is particularly important if these expectations cause us to feel bad about ourselves, such as feeling we are never enough for constantly not meeting the mark.

Let’s return to my former examples. If I am afraid of water, not a sporty person, and a slower learner, it is unrealistic (and unfair) for me to expect myself to perform as well as someone who is more aquatically-inclined. The more fitting and realistic ‘expectation’ is that I would take a longer time than most people to learn how to freedive. In my case, it makes little sense at all to compare myself to my stronger course mates, and it makes no sense at all to beat myself up over not achieving the same targets as they did on that first day.

And let’s use the other example as well. If someone has many interests and potential careers and wants to try many different things, or if someone has a disability or health condition; it is unreasonable to expect this person to hit the same milestones as someone who is healthy, single-minded in his interest and career and works hard solely towards one endpoint. It makes little sense to compare oneself with another who has a completely different life situation from you and feel bad over it because that expectation does not consider your unique specifics.

How then do you identify your expectations and check their reasonableness and consider if you need to adjust them to make them realistic to your specific situation?

You write them down. 🙂

It may begin with a constant disappointment you feel within yourself when you are trying to do something. You will notice the joy isn’t there, and you are not at your most creative. Instead, you are worried or concerned about whether you are meeting someone’s or an imagined standard of performance. There will be a pattern. If you observe your emotions, you will see them repeatedly triggered by certain things you do and do not do. Rather than being fully present in the moment, you are thinking about where you stand compared to where you wish to be at.

Some people intentionally impose these expectations on themselves out of fear they would trail behind. They feel that high standards motivate themselves towards better versions of themselves. They don’t see a need to make them more realistic, they want to be driven by them. However, making yourself constantly feel inadequate is not a healthy emotional or mental state to be in. And continually pushing yourself “to be someone you are not” or “to be somewhere you are not yet ready for” is not the healthiest way to become a better person.

You grow best when you meet yourself where you are at, considering your unique characteristics and conditions and then giving prods that are just enough and just right for yourself. Instead of using an arbitrary standard that others set for you or that your mental state created from the collection of your memories of what you think others have achieved, it it better to use yourself instead of expectations as the starting point. We give precedence to where we are at bodily, mentally, and emotionally.

Examining our expectations and adjusting them to fit ourselves, frees us to live according to our own terms. Instead of being controlled by unseen forces that dictate who we should be and how we should do things.

The way to examine your expectations is to write them down. I did this exercise when I was on Utila Island, a backpacker’s paradise, when I was feeling unhappy and trying to figure out why.

Let me share a simple analysis of one of my expectations. I had the expectation that I should remember the names of people I have met. I usually take some effort to do this because I know it can make someone feel special.

But let me check right now, how realistic this expectation is when:

  1. I am not good at recognizing faces/appearances.
  2. I meet so many people every day (This was pre-Covid-19 days.).
  3. Some encounters are fleeting and not as intense or strong as others, many are just smiling at someone who passes by.
  4. It is not realistic to remember every face/encounter, when I have a limited attention span and memory.
  5. I can’t possibly give 100% to everyone I meet (I am not always at my best and sometimes I’m tired to socialise.)
  6. It is not rude to honestly ask someone to remind me, “How did we meet?” Because I may not remember the person’s face or name, but I usually remember the nature of the encounter – like where we met and what we were doing then.
  7. People may more easily remember me because I stood out as an Asian among a more Caucasian/Caribbean crowd.

My adjusted expectation: I meet many people every day. Some connections are stronger than others. It is okay to connect differently and with differing depths with different people. I cannot and will not be everyone’s best friend.

Let me give another example of an expectation I dissected. I was learning how to be a freediving instructor. I had this expectation that I should already be able to function as a freediving instructor in teaching and performance while training to be one.

How reasonable was this when:

  1. I have ‘never’ done it before and am new to it.
  2. I already know that certain things I am expected to do as an instructor are at the moment still difficult for me, such as opening my eyes and diving in tandem with another person.
  3. My CO2 tolerance is not my strength, and contractions and feelings of discomfort are easily felt.
  4. I have ‘stage fright’ or ‘performance anxiety’ and tend to care a lot about how others think of me.
  5. I am an instructor-in-training and learning the ropes.
  6. The many things the Apnea Total school does are new to me, such as exhale diving. (So I am also learning a new set of knowledge and skills.)
  7. It takes time to grow into a new role and the body to strengthen for the job.
  8. I was also trying to train for depth myself (conflict of goals and outcomes.).

So I adjusted my expectations: I am an instructor-in-training. I am here to learn what it takes to be an instructor and to pick up the required knowledge and skills. I will not be immediately good. We each have our strengths and weaknesses as instructors.

What happened after I put my expectations down on paper and examined how realistic they were was that I became more relaxed and clear-headed as to what I needed to do to meet my goals. I realised I did not need to feel bad or intentionally try so hard to remember names of people. I should also give myself more time to learn the ropes of being an instructor. For someone else, it may take 2 weeks to 1 month, but for me, I am ready to give myself 3 months or even more.

After these realizations, I could address the situations objectively without anxiety. I no longer felt that I have fallen short, but instead, I asked how I could change the conditions to help myself – the way I am right now- feel better? Sometimes it involved me changing the way I think about something. At other times, it required me to re-adjusting my goals and expectations.

Examining my expectations made me more compassionate towards myself and a better problem solver. It stopped me from berating myself too easily and too quickly, for little reason, other than I did not meet up to my (unrealistic) expectations of myself. It gave me the clarity of mind and steadiness of heart to decide whether I should adjust my expectations, my goals and/or my approaches towards my goals. It also lessens the emotional tension as it no longer felt like my fault that I was not meeting up to these expectations.

I learned to examine the hidden expectations I have on myself and make them explicit so that I can personalise them to suit my unique personality, situation, and needs.

Instead of being a victim of vague internal standards that had been formed unintentionally, I can choose for myself which set of expectations I want to live by.

– – –

This post is inspired and made possible by I, who asked me to write down my expectations to check if they were realistic. 🙂 Thank you I for always being my cheerleader with matters related to my mental and emotional health.


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