How Lower Expectations HELP Your Relationships

Love, Family

This post is for all the eternal optimists out there.
It’s time to lower your expectations.
Truly.
I know you don’t want to and I am pretty sure you will resist what I am saying but truly, this post is from my heart with the intent to relive some of the inner conflict you feel in your life.
I am a true optimist ; give me a situation and I can put a rainbow on it. Possibly even with a pot of gold.
Ironically though, this trait has caused me a lot of pain in my life. How?

Expectations Have Gotten Me in Trouble in Two Main Ways:

  1. When I expect others to act differently than they always have in the past, or
  2. When I expect others to act the way that I would in a certain situation. 

When I expect others to act differently than they have before, I feel let down, disappointed, and frustrated. Does this happen to you too? We want to expect the best of everyone and, in doing so, we forget that our definition of “best” may not be their definition of “best”. We forget that we are all different and that those differences are what fuels the human experience.

How Have High Expectations Gotten Me in Trouble in Real Life Situations?

I used to go into family visits expecting my mom to be kind, comforting, and supportive. I used to think my dad would be understanding and have my back. What happened? They acted as they always have (critical, distant, ) and I felt frustrated, disappointed, and completely let down. Maybe this has happened to you: Have you ever thought: This year our holiday dinner (or vacation) will be different. This year we’ll all get along, no one will drink too much, no one will complain, and everyone will leave singing kumbaya.” What happens? People show up as their human selves, act as they always have and we leave feeling low. What I’d like to help you see is that, in accepting reality, you will be calmer and more at peace. Your family is what it is. Your spouse is what s/he is. Your kids are what they are. Let go of trying to control or imagine the “perfect holiday event” and embrace your holiday reality on its’ own merit WE. 

Not everyone thinks how we think. People don’t act how we would in certain situations and that’s okay.  There is nothing wrong with us (or them). Of course I encourage you to search out relationships with those who act and think in alignment with your values. However, there are times in life when we choose to stay in contact with those who aren’t in alignment with our values (usually family members or old family friends) and it is in these situations that this post addresses. If you are choosing to be around these people for whatever reason, I passionately ask that you lower your expectations.

Why Should We Lower Expectations?

First and probably most obviously, it’s easier for us! When you go into situations thinking people will act or be differently than they always have in the past, you feel disappointed, frustrated, or discouraged. Lowering our expectations allows people to show up as they always have without thinking it will be different. I define suffering as resisting reality. When I would go into family visits thinking my dad would suddenly have my back or support me, I would leave feeling let down and resentful. If I go into a family visit with lower and more realistic expectations like my dad will say critical things about me and my past, and he did, I would feel more neutral and less resentful.

Which leads us to number two reason to lower expectations: It’s actually kinder for them. I know, dear optimist, you don’t believe me but keep reading. You are not doing anyone any favors thinking your version of them is how they’re going to present when they’ve never expressed interest or ability to change. How fair is it to expect your mom to not complain when that’s all she’s ever done? How loving is it to expect your mother in law to not micro manage everything when that’s what she always does? How kind is it to think your dad won’t over drink when that’s what he’s always done. Allowing people to show up as they are is the foundation of unconditional love. Unconditional love is about loving one another regardless of what they do, say, or how they show up. Love is not “I’ll love you when…” or “I’ll love you if…”. Those are conditions people and they set us up for empty relationships .

How Do We Start Lowering Our Expectations?

We start where we are. Right here and right now by pausing to think about what are your expectations. Get out a pen and paper and start writing:

Where are you wishing others in your life were different than they are?
Do you think “If only he would…”?
What are your expectations for the holiday season?
What are your expectations for your kids’ behavior?
What is your expectation of your spouse or partner’s behavior?
What are your expectations of your extended family?

The lower your expectations, the higher your level of contentment and joy will be. Don’t see how? Think through the following: 

What do you expect your extended family members to act like at gatherings?
What do you expect your husband, friends, or family to give you for a gift?
What do you expect your kids to act like at different events?

Examine your answers to determine where you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

Are you expecting your alcoholic father to drink responsibly?
Are you expecting your critical mother-in-law to compliment your parenting style?
Are you expecting your non-demonstrative husband to hold your hand and hug you by the tree each night?

Guess what? You don’t need a life coach to tell you that you’re going to be disappointed. 

What Can You Do?

One of my favorite tools to help lower expectations around a specific event (holiday meal, family vacation) is what I call FAMILY BINGO. The idea is this: Get out a piece of paper and draw a bingo sheet (or download one here). In each square you are going to write what normally happens that has mildly (or acutely) bothered you in the past.  Examples:

Dad drinks too much.
Mom criticizes my outfit.
Sister asks if I’ve gained weight.
Son swears in front of Grandma.
Daughter keeps looking at phone during Christmas Concert.

Tuck that paper into your pocket and go into your family gathering or vacation. When the things in the boxes happen, cross them off your list. The beauty is what happens in your mind. When you expect your mom to criticize you and she does, what do you think? Instead of thinking “Dammit, my mom is so critical. Why can’t I do anything right in her eyes?”; You think “Yep, there she goes again, finding something to criticize. Wonder what she’ll criticize next?” How will you feel differently when you think the second thought rather than the first?

Are You Starting to See Why Lowering Your Expectations Helps?

We can not control what others will do, say, or act. We can always control how we react. Let your mom be your mom. Let your son be your son. Let your spouse be your spouse. This does not mean allow people to treat you in an abusive manner. That’s a different situation where boundaries are needed and that is not what I’m talking about or covering in this blog.

When we drop our expectations from some lofty, fantasy world of how everyone’s going to act, we feel happier and calmer. It’s not that we have lowered our standards, it’s that we’re no longer trying to control how others should act or what others should do. This is a good thing because, newsflash, we can’t. We can’t control how other people act, what other people say or what others do.  What can we control? Us. We get to control what we do, what we say, and how we say it. We get to choose which thoughts to focus on and which thoughts to let pass by. 

My gift for the holidays is to lower my expectations. This is a gift I’m giving to myself and to others. In lowering my expectations, I give others the freedom to be themselves. To accept them without trying to change them. To make their actions mean something about them, not me.

Cheers to a happy, holiday season. Now let’s get out those BINGO boards! 

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This article was originally published at https://smbwell.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.