“I should be better at this.”
“My parents will be disappointed if I don’t get this job.”
“No one will want to date me unless I lose 30 pounds.”
“I need to make a certain amount or have a certain job title to stay relevant at work.”
Do these statements sound familiar? These are the things we tell ourselves when we let our lives be dictated by expectations. These expectations can come from others or from ourselves. They’re the ultimatums we give ourselves in order to be liked and accepted by others. If we meet these expectations, we tell ourselves, others will accept us.
For example, a student might feel that he has to get all As so that he can earn his parents’ approval or so that he can get into the college his parents expect him to (not the one he wants to attend). Or, a young working professional starts to feel discouraged that she’ll never be promoted by the time she’s 30 (an expectation she had for herself). The people in both of these situations set expectations for themselves that symbolize their worth as people.
But it comes at a cost.
Those expectations are the bars we set for ourselves. When we meet (or surpass) them, we feel like we are worthy. If we don’t meet those expectations, we feel like the exact opposite — that we aren’t good enough.
In my work as a psychotherapist, I’ve met with many clients who tell me that they think they’ve disappointed their friends, family, and coworkers each time they make a mistake. Some tell me how they believe they haven’t lived up to their own expectations, because they didn’t land the perfect job right out of college. Others tell me that, because they don’t have the “perfect” body or appearance, no one will want to date them. Still others tell me that they feel guilty, because they aren’t the “perfect” mom, husband, daughter, etc. None of them tell me that they believe they are living a fulfilling life when they let their self-worth be defined by these external expectations.
The common thread in all of these examples is that these individuals believe they must be perfect and that they must live up to the expectations of others (and themselves). But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: these expectations are arbitrary. Who says that you have to find the perfect job right out of college? In my experience, many people don’t find their dream job right away. It takes a time. Who says you have to meet society’s expectations for the perfect body? Who even set those expectations? And are they realistic? (Don’t forget photoshop tricks!) Where did the belief come from that we can never make mistakes? The point is, these expectations are all arbitrary and not definitive rules for the only way to live life. There are other options out there.
Not only are these expectations arbitrary, but they will almost always backfire on you. You can’t live your life according to the expectations of others. When you do, you aren’t living your own life — you’re living someone else’s life. Additionally, when you let your self-worth depend on the approval of others, disappointing them feels like the most devastating thing in the world.
This is a stressful and discouraging way to live. Remember that none of us is perfect. We all make mistakes. We will disappoint people. We’ll disappoint ourselves. But the world doesn’t have to end when that happens.
Instead of letting your life be ruled by the expectations of others or your own expectation that you have to perfect, what if you just did your best? Instead of pursuing a career as a lawyer because that’s what you are supposed to do (according to your family), what if you did what you really wanted to do? Instead of dieting and following a ruthless exercise routine so that you can fit into society’s current expectation for a perfect body, what if you were thankful for the body you had and nourished it and exercised to be healthy? Instead of letting your life be defined by the grades you get or the promotions you earn, what if you focused on living a balanced life full of friends, family, work, and leisure?
Instead of asking, “What should I do?” or “What would my friend/parent/significant other expect me to do?”, ask yourself, “What do I want to do?” and “What do I think is best?” Trust yourself. Don’t look to others for approval or for directions for how to live your life. Look at all of the options out there for living life and pick the ones that you feel called to.