Friday Jun 22 2007
Expectations are basic to who we are. From the time we are born, we live in a relationship with the future based on our experience of the past and the interpretations of reality that we learn from our culture and history. We learn from our parents to live up to our expectations. We organize our actions based on them and, more often than not, they become self-fulfilling. When something unexpected occurs, we feel fortunate if it is good and upset if it is bad. Our moods are always correlated to our expectations. And as we grow older, most of us expect to ‘slow down’, experience declining health, need to change our lifestyle and perhaps to give up many of the things we’ve enjoyed most in our lives. The general expectation of old age is one of decline.
If I were to have a child (a hypothetical choice at this point in my life, as I am long past my child-bearing years), I would not be able to bring them up without teaching them what to expect in the future. For from the first time they cry and I respond, I would begin a pattern of stimulus-and-response behavior that would create an expectation. If I can perceive that my child is hungry, I would feed them: wet, I would change them. In need of tender touch and affirmation of my presence, I would provide both for them. And in doing so, they would connect their need and their rudimentary vocal and body language with a fulfillment of that need. The mere act of making a request by verbalizing or indicating with some form of ‘language’, followed by a patterned response, creates a context of expectation.
As we grow up, we are certainly as aware of unfulfilled expectations as the baby who has not been fed. As we mature, we may be more cognizant of our expectations of ourselves to be a certain way, to do certain things, to achieve certain goals. We may or may not also become aware of our hidden expectations of others.
What we may not notice is that all these inner promptings, whether we view them as goals, needs or desires, may be dictated by others’ expectations of us. Our values and beliefs, choices and ways of being may very well be ‘inherited’ from and influenced by our families, our education and our culture. Witness the teenager who rebels against parental dictums simply to resist their parent’s expectations and stake out their own definition of self.
These inner promptings to do or ‘be’ may also surface as attempts to control ourselves and other people and things in our environment. My earliest memory is of my mother coming into the room surrounded by a dark cloud of sadness, and my reaching out to her through the crib bars in an attempt to touch her and somehow make her happy. My childhood experiences with ‘cheering up’ people involved much joking around, play ‘acting’ and ‘performing’. I was driven to make others happy, and became quite successful at making my mother smile, at the very least. But I was also creating a pattern of expectation for myself: when others were not happy or did not respond to my attempts to ‘help’, I invalidated myself, became upset and disappointed, until I began to feel ‘less than’ and unconsciously stopped loving myself. Worse, my unfulfilled self-expectations became a kind of justification that I didn’t deserve to be loved, reasoning that allowed me to shut out others, including my husband. I ended up building my first career on the premise that my behavior and actions could create happiness in others, and when my expectations were not fulfilled, I settled for less, abandoning my career as a performer. Now, as my expectations in my marriage remain unfulfilled and I feel I have failed in trying to make one person happy (my husband), I am deciding to move on and invent a new life and a new career.
What is different now, however, is that I realize I cannot make anyone else happy. In fact, the only person’s happiness that I can generate is my own, and it isn’t an expectation of happiness, but a commitment to ‘be’ happy—a lesson learned from a lifetime of living within a context of expectation of what life will be, can be or should be. At last I am free to be free, at least for the moment, of expectations of myself and others. I am free to experience whatever life has in store for me, to experience the moment, to live full out without regret or expectation that I am ‘less than’ and need others or that others need me.
If I were to assume that my past history of failed expectations and disappointment would predict my future, I would choose to avoid the pain of potential failure altogether by never entering a relationship again, never singing on stage again, and never reaching out to people. Instead, I am prepared to embrace my past as a foundation for the future and not as a prediction of what will be. I can still have expectations, but now they will not have me.
If I can just learn to allow life to unfold, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised by what appears… perhaps getting older can be about getting better! Now that is something I didn’t expect!