“My power is my ability to not be influenced” — Kanye West
We all struggle at some level with living up to the expectations of others. It begins from the time we are born. First, our parents establish rules for how we should behave. When we go to school, we have educational standards and goals to live up to, and we can only advance to the next grade when we meet them. When we get a job, our employers expect certain things of us. Eventually, we learn to develop our own expectations of how others should behave. We take these expectations into our relationships with our spouses, we impose them on our children—and the cycle continues.
Expectations aren’t bad in and of themselves; we all have them. They are a natural part of life. The problem arises when we place too much weight on the expectations of others, to the point that we start living for their approval. We get lost somewhere between the way others see us and who we really are.
The Challenge of Living by Others’ Expectations
Why do the expectations of other people create such inner conflict in our lives? The reasons are many, but let’s just look at a few:
- Expectations are not an accurate gauge of what is right for you. Even with the best of intentions, someone else’s expectation of you will be based not on who you are, but on that person’s own experience, opinions, pain, disappointments, and moral values. In other words, those expectations aren’t really about you—they’re about the other person. Accordingly, they’re not necessarily a good compass for your life.
- Expectations are often unrealistic. Because expectations are devices of the mind, they are often not grounded in reality. They don’t take into account your abilities or your desires, or even what is possible or reasonable. When you try to live up to unfair expectations, you’ll fail every time.
- Expectations are contradictory. Most of us have more than one person of influence in our lives, and since no two people have the same perspective, the expectations of these people will inevitably contradict at some point. It’s statistically impossible to please everyone at once, so when you live to please others, you’ll be faced with continual failure.
Living by Others’ Expectations Can Be Harmful
Expectations are unavoidable, but when we internalize them the wrong way, it can affect us negatively in a number of ways:
- It can breed anger and resentment. The saying goes: “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” It doesn’t just breed resentment in the person whose expectations we fail to meet—it breeds resentment in us, as well. When we deny our own desires in favor of the expectations of others, we are prone to become resentful or angry.
- It can cripple our own ability to make decisions. Baras refers to this as our “wanting muscle.” When we allow the voices of others to drown out what we want for ourselves, we lose the ability to have an opinion, and our self-esteem plummets.
- It can lead to mental health issues like depression. Psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, says living a life driven by a need for approval leads to inner conflict and ultimately depression. “The more conflicted you feel, the more afraid you become of expressing your real self,” she says. “As a result, you may drive your feelings deeper underground.”
Tips for Letting Go of Others’ Expectations
If being driven by others’ expectations can be detrimental to our emotional/mental health, how can we learn to let go of them? The path to change takes some time and effort, but the following tips may help you get started:
- Put the expectations in perspective. Remember that someone else’s expectation of you is theirs, not yours—and therefore it is their problem, not yours. Understanding this one point almost immediately softens the blow of disappointment.
- Check your own expectations of others. When you find yourself judging the behaviors of others—for example, your children or spouse—don’t be afraid to examine your own motives without self-condemnation. Learning why you form expectations can tell you a lot about how other people form theirs.
- Cultivate your inner voice. Take some time alone and sincerely ask yourself what you want (journaling your thoughts often helps.) If no one else was telling you what you should want—what would you want for yourself?
- Begin saying what you want. Be affirmative, not defensive, but get in the habit of expressing your opinions, wants and needs. They’re as valid as anyone else’s.
Ultimately, the key to letting go of the expectations of others is not in fighting them, and certainly not resenting them, but rather keeping them in their proper place. You can certainly benefit from the input of others, but not if it means squishing your inner voice. Your life is yours and yours only. You are in the best position to know what is best for you. Don’t let the expectations of others get in the way of being true to who you are.