The Weight of Expectation. Or “The Worst Thing About Me.”

So here’s how the last few months have gone down: I took a full time job that was a COMPLETE FAIL, which started me into a tailspin of ohfuckwhatamidoingwithmylife, my child started day care and hates it so much he’s practicing his first sentence, “go to hell,” my sister-in-law smacked her head and nearly paralyzed herself, I’ve gotten into a complicated emotional kerfluffle with my father and his wife, I drunkenly told my older brother off, and my younger brother lost his best friend in a car accident. Now none of these things happened TO me. They were all things that either happened by the course of nature, the actions of others, or I played a direct hand in making a mess of them. I’m not crying victim. I am simply setting the stage for what has been a very involved and emotionally fraught period of self identification, searching, and smoking menthols on a park bench like a crazy person. 

My husband is sticking around because of the “for better or worse” clause, though he has made no secret of the fact that if I don’t get my shit together soon, he’s going to go find a nice Christian girl to settle down with. (He dated a Mormon once. I know he secretly fantasizes about those prudish, God-fearing types.) The baby pretends like he doesn’t know I’m a hot mess, but I can see it in his eyes. He knows that if I don’t get things figured out soon I will bring shame to our house and he will not be able to go to daycare without the burden of my failures. His meals, though mostly still up to snuff, have occasionally included portions of more pedestrian items and he has shown his dissatisfaction by lobbing them at my face or methodically dropping them onto the floor. 

I’m well medicated, so I can’t blame all of this on my psychiatrist, though I’d like to. It’s even baffled my mother, who feels like the first question one should always ask when feeling an emotion is, “am I on enough medication.” Yes. I am. This situation is not about meds or situational depression, it’s about something much worse. It’s about LIFE. 

I start most days with a list of consulting work that needs to be tended to and a checklist that includes things like “laundry” “kitchen” and “figure out what you want to do with your life.” For the most part, I treat them the same. I spend a few minutes sorting colors, a few minutes emptying the dishwasher, and a few minutes sitting on the couch wondering if I can come up with something exciting to do with my life. Something that makes me feel like I’m not just existing, working, and drinking rose and watching Bones on HuluPLUS. I don’t want a job. I want an all consuming, integrated personal and professional existence that makes me fell stimulated and involved and a little bit important. I don’t know why that’s so hard. 

Carol is my therapist and she’s pretty much the only good thing going for my mental health these days. I have no idea how fucked up Carol’s own children are, but in my imaginings they are the most well adjusted, happy people in the world. They have to be. Carol spits nuggets of pure gold and has the kind of perspective that makes me feel disproportionately well adjusted and reasonable when I leave her office. I sit down a hot mess and leave a real human being— with perspective. 

This week, I plopped myself down on the couch and told Carol to prepare for tears and not to comment on whether I smelled like cigarettes because I didn’t want to talk about it. She laughed and told me she wouldn’t hold her breath for tears, but was thrilled that she’d just bought a new box of Kleenex. (She nudged it at me, as much so I’d know it was there as to show me the really unattractive pattern adorning the box.) I proceeded to outline my case for the midlife crisis I was convinced I was going through and bemoan every detail of my existence. 

(Sidenote: it’s very important to me that Carol know both sides of the things that I tell her so that she can try to provide me with more objective feedback in how I’ve mishandled (aka fucked up) a situation. This often results in elaborate recreations of situations, including live readings of text and email threads, Facebook interactions, and phone conversations. It could be mistaken as a one-man show.) 

After I’d finished explaining why I didn’t have to will to go on, Carol sad something completely unexpected. 

“Sounds like life to me.” 

In the back of my mind, I already knew, really knew, what she was saying. I’d said it to myself. But hearing Carol say it so simply made me a little… deflated. If this is life, what does that mean for me? I told her I couldn’t imagine an existence with so many unknowns, so many unanswered questions, so many things I couldn’t control or understand. 

“You need to better understand your expectations, where they come from, and why they matter. Then you need to learn to let them go.” 

I’m going to give you a few moments to reread that, take it in, and then we will continue. 

….. 

…. 

… 

.. 

Though I’ve never really been able to understand how to actualize the feedback, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. How does a person lower their expectations? Isn’t an expectation a natural and immutable thing? Isn’t that why it’s called an expectation? I countered with a similar argument to Carol. 

“You’re angry and frustrated with other people because they haven’t met your expectations of them. Regardless of whether they’ve met their own expectations of themselves.” 

So I thought about it. (Re: obsessed about it.) And I’m pretty sure that somewhere in that logic flow is the key to enlightenment. (Someone find me a fucking Bohdi tree STAT.) High or low, I enter into every situation with an expectation not only of the outcome, but of the people involved, their roles, their places, and their actions. When those expectations aren’t met, it crushes me. And then I need answers. I become obsessed with getting those answers. Why did you do it this way? Why didn’t you think to do it that way?

Not only do I judge others by these expectations, I define them. Friends I’ve known for years will never be able to reinvent themselves in my mind because of my expectations of their reactions, feelings, and opinions. Christmas will forever be an emotional shit show because of my expectations. I expect everyone to play the role in the manner I have outlined in my own mind. And if they aren’t going to, they better be prepared to exceed my expectations. Otherwise… 

Theoretically, it’s a goldmine. If I were able to understand these expectations and adjust them, I’d probably be better liked, less stressed, more productive, more accommodating, thinner, happier, have thicker hair, better nails. God knows what. But in reality it’s something else entirely. It’s a terrible character flaw. I mean, seriously, who wants to be friends with that chick? Oh, right. NO ONE. 

So what’s the moral lesson here? Absolutely nothing. There’s atonement to be had in recognizing that some failures were a failure of expectation, not a failure of competency. But there’s no atonement in realizing that you’ve hurt people because you judged and found them wanting based on a system of measurement they didn’t even know existed. There’s also no easy way to begin lowering your expectations of yourself. There’s not a simple method for saying, “it’s okay to not achieve that because you set unrealistic expectations for yourself.” Because unrealistic or not, they were expectations. And they are there. Looming. 

And every morning when you wake up you have to sit on the couch during the time allotted for “figuring out what to do with your life” and try to figure out what your expectations should be when all you ever knew before was that they needed to be high. 

 

 

7 thoughts on “The Weight of Expectation. Or “The Worst Thing About Me.”

  1. I think you just figured it out what’s wrong with me. Or the answer to that little voice that says “GOD! What’s wrong with you!?”. Hey – maybe we can blame genetics…

  2. I’m seeing my first therapist (since high school) this Friday! Let the fixing begin.. (and you and I need a much needed playdate)

  3. Wow. Loved this post. “You need to better understand your expectations, where they come from, and why they matter. Then you need to learn to let them go.” So true. And so hard.

    P.S. I too sit on the couch and wonder what I’m doing with my life. You are not alone in wanting a fulfilling job, but life is more than just a job.

    P.P.S Oh, and I totally set expectations of others and then are crushed at outcomes. I think I need a Carol in my life.

    P.P.P.S. You are doing an awesome job at mommyhood!

    P.P.P.P.S. Love you.

  4. Caroline – you are not alone. I’ve done this a better part of my adult life – and totally relate to expectations placed on people they never knew about. And I obsess…and obsess some more when things haven’t gone as I expected. It’s something I consciously work on now and it has gotten better. I love your honest posts – thank you for sharing and enlightening me once again.

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