Once a gauge for how charitably life was treating me, my expectations had become as pointless as my appendix.
Expectations: a mission statement for psychopaths
We humans are cursed with a bad habit. We deem nearly every thought that puffs from the chimneys of our overheated minds as logical and true, and this leaves us vulnerable to all manner of misery. As children we convince ourselves that monsters live under our beds, for example. I once thought an elderly lady in my neighbourhood chopped up little kids with a butcher knife!
As we grow into adulthood, we learn to separate truth from fiction. A reasonable assumption, don’t you think? But we do no such thing. We adults engage in delusional thinking that makes monsters seem plausible by comparison. How else might one describe the idea that other people should live up to our expectations? Equal parts absurdity and arrogance, it is a mission statement for psychopaths. You know – people like you and me.
My life is teeming with examples of such delusional thinking. It’s been one dashed expectation after another. My girlfriends didn’t understand me. College professors were unreasonably strict. My friends let me down. Bosses didn’t give me enough credit. My chiropractor didn’t make my back better. Neighbours made too much noise. And my dry cleaners couldn’t iron a shirt to save their lives.
I simply wanted others to hold up their end of the bargain. I expect they deliver. Was this really asking too much?
Did civility die and someone forget to tell me about it?
Life as a martyr
If being delusional wasn’t painful enough, I tried my hand at masochism. I came to rationalise all the psychological suffering I experienced as a result of unmet expectations as a sad fact of life. The rejections, the degradations – all of it. I chalked it up as the price of nobility, refusing to lower my expectations in the face of rampant mediocre human behaviour. I was in pain, but it was a good kind of pain – a saintly pain, if you will.
Life as a martyr definitely had its drawbacks though. I came tantalisingly close to happiness without ever really touching it. It was like admiring priceless artefacts through thick glass. Living in a world where my high standards guaranteed disappointment at nearly every turn felt morally superior, but hollow. A grey cloud seemed to follow me everywhere, like I had it on a leash – and maybe I did.
Lifting the veil
Could it be that the world wasn’t really as unsympathetic as it seemed? Were those grey clouds of my own making? Could they be the exhaust of my failed attempts to regulate the behaviour of others?
With great trepidation, and with little to lose, I resolved to drop my expectations and meet others on their own terms. Would life be any less disheartening?
As the veil of my expectations lifted, I had a clearer view of the world around me. People entered and exited my field of vision, doing what they always did, but I no longer perceived anything conspiratorial in their behaviour. They weren’t out to make my life miserable. They were simply making their way in a world fraught with challenges, just like me. It was never personal. Their actions weren’t about me. Shedding that misconception felt like losing a hundred pounds. Once a gauge for how charitably life was treating me, my expectations had become as pointless as my appendix.
The asterisk that had always characterised my state of happiness as a work in progress has been removed. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not always happy. I no longer expect that of myself. You see, that’s the other thing. The expectations I had of myself were as enslaving as those I projected onto others. Same measuring stick, but pointed in the opposite direction.
For a long time I expected more from life than it was giving me. It was a great approach, except for the fact that it was completely insane. I get what life hands me, not what I want. One is real; one is illusion. My greatest expectations are no match for my smallest moments of true happiness.
John Ptacek’s essays explore the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. They appear on his website. www.johnptacek.com
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