Great Expectations

Mwahaha, I did indeed steal that title from Dickens.  Yes, I did read the book, so I assume it’s allowed.  No, this post won’t be about jilted women who never change out of their wedding attire, but it will be about expectations and how weighty they can be.   What follows will be a concept that never occurred to me until my therapist and I went over it, but it’s one that has completely shifted my worldview and the way I try to live.

Now, with that weighty introduction and the pressure of the expectations I just set, let’s see if I can live up to it.  (I know, I’m terrible. You can shoot–or thank me–later.)

First, have some quotes to chew on.

“Make no small plans, they make no magic to stir man’s soul.” ~Unknown

“…it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.” ~Diana Wynne Jones

Now, to business.


I am very good at being ambitious.  I have a million zillion things I want to do, tons of lofty goals to aim and shoot for.  I had a six month blip when I first got sick where I wasn’t sure if I was even capable of aiming for or reaching anything, but that passed and I was back to my old routine of shooting for five, six stars at once.   This is perfectly acceptable.  However….

The Stress of Expectations.

There are two ways Expectations can be a heavy burden.

  1. If you expect you will fail, then you won’t work hard enough or resourcefully enough to see that you don’t.  “I can’t” or “That won’t work” or “That’s impossible” or “There’s no way that…” then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.   All your energy will go into negative thoughts: worries, fears, stresses, panicking, disbelief–when it could be going into constructive directions: problem-solving, creative brainstorming, researching options, trying, failing, then trying and succeeding.
  2. If you believe everything must or should turn out a certain way, then you feel like a failure if it doesn’t.  Deadlines, schedules, task-lists, itineraries, plans, goals, perfectionism, and so on can hinder as much as they help.  If you don’t reach a goal in the time you allotted yourself, if you don’t manage to accomplish everything on your list for that day, if once again you lost your temper when you’d sworn you would never do that again, you feel terrible, crushed by the weight of your self-imposed expectations.
  3. (Technically, there is also the weight of expectations–real or imagined–that others put on us, but for this discussion I’m not going to deal with this one.)

They’re both related to each other, obviously, since they both deal with the expectations we put on ourselves and our situations.  Though #1 is about expecting failure and #2 is about expecting success or completion.

Let me go back to the quote from Diana Wynne Jones: “…it is better to aim for the moon and get halfway there than just to aim for the roof and get halfway upstairs.”

Someone with Expectation Problem #1 will expect to fall short, so they probably won’t even try for the moon.  Or if they try, they will be kicking themselves and the people who might try to convince them of its possibility to the point where they won’t get very far at all.

Someone with Expectation Problem #2 will expect to reach the moon and then, when they only manage to get halfway, they will kick themselves and get depressed and wonder why they weren’t good enough to succeed, completely ignoring just how much they did manage to accomplish.  Their self-worth takes a huge hit to the guts, and they will only believe the praise of others when they’ve managed to accomplish something again.

Aaaah, yes.  Our expectations can be problematic indeed.

How this topic relates.

Because of my illness, my limitations and my abilities completely changed, meaning that all my old expectations of what I could or could not accomplish in any given day, week, or month were not just “no longer applicable” but placed a huge strain on my day-to-day life.

And yet, because of my illness, I was able to sit down and rethink a lot of my behavior and attitude towards myself.

Letting Go of Harsh Expectations.

Here is what I jotted down in my little pocketbook after a therapy session back in May 2011:

“Determination, pushing through, worked in the past–but now you can’t work yourself out of this. You work hard and you get sicker. You just have to learn to stop measuring life by tasks and learn how to be and live and hope for God to help and for whatever I do to turn out ok and trust that God is in charge.  Nothing wrong with hard work or determination, but there is balance and letting go of the things you can’t control or the things you simply can’t get done or do and just learning to live.  And breathe. And balance. Learn to live.”

Rambly, but hopefully it makes some sort of sense to someone not me.  Yes, you can tell from this that I struggle with Expectation Problem #2 a lot.  Hopefully I’m getting better at it.  I’ve made progress on it over the last year, at least, though even as I write this I have this self-imposed deadline of finishing up this blog series within the next week.  And if I don’t succeed, how will I feel?  Will I feel like an utter failure?  No, I’ve managed to temper my goals/expectations a little so they’re not as weighty or as all-important or as rigid as they used to be.  But I will still get a little kick of failure to my guts.

“Learn how to hope instead of constantly push through things. Hope sometimes is like a surrender.”

Good Expectations.

Let’s see if I can describe what good expectations look and feel like.  We’re not quite old friends yet, but we’re tentative acquaintances, so I’ll try to paint a rough sketch for you.

Good expectations are

  • forgiving
  • kind
  • patient
  • reasonable
  • hopeful
  • flexible
  • resourceful

In my interview with Charlie Holmberg, when talking about how my illness helps or hinders my writing, I said, “…writing daily keeps me going, mentally and emotionally, health-wise. Though I am no longer able to tally up my self-worth based off of how many things I can accomplish in a given day, week, or month (which is a blessing, I’ve found), creating something personal daily and crawling towards my goals still brings me great satisfaction and stability. Time—and the expectations of arbitrary deadlines—have gradually lost meaning to me. Now it’s more about the journey, more about the present, the moment, and of being who and where I am.”

An Example.

Right now I have an expectation: I would like to finish this post (and blog series) before I leave for Chicago next week.  Expectation: I would like to do a good job talking about this subject.  However, I have some conditions: I’m tired, and a bit burned out.  This isn’t the first thing I’ve had to think through and piece together today, and part of my face is going numb, among other things.

How I’m tempering/adapting my expectation:  I’m using a lot of quotes and already-written materials to try to express myself.  I’m reminding myself that if I don’t get this post done before the end of the day, it really isn’t the end of the world. Also, I’m curbing my perfectionism–this post is just a post. It will go up tomorrow (Friday) but it doesn’t need to be spotless, or perfect, or even completely coherent. I can always take a hint from the film industry and fix it “in post” if it comes down to it.  And yes, even if I only reach  my moon-goal halfway and only half of this post makes sense or does what I hoped it would, then that is okay, too.  It’s infinitely better than no attempt at all.  And you know what? I’ve had a lot of people telling me how much these posts have opened their eyes and taught them something new.  So that is something I can smile about and be proud of.  Rather than take a hit to my self-esteem, I’m going to choose to take some points.

Now my expectation about this post is a kind one.  It doesn’t weigh as heavily on me as when I started.  It’s hopeful about what this post can accomplish, but it’s patient with my limitations and forgiving about what I fall short on–and will fall short on.  It’s also resourceful in acknowledging that I will come back and reread and tweak this before the day’s ended.

Now that I’ve finished, I’m done with brainwork for the day, so it’s time to rest up. And tomorrow, I’m going to one of my favorite places around the city, so that will be refreshing and something to look forward to.

Wherever my best work brings me, whether it’s half-way to the moon or only a quarter of the way there, then that is good enough.


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