... and here's what you can do to keep your joy.
Unless you’ve been living the life of a hermit, people have disappointed you. It’s one of the biggest challenges of relationships. Even those we love the most don’t live up to our expectations on a fairly consistent basis. Whether it’s how we want them to make us feel, or the way we want them to respond to a particular need or desire, or maybe it’s just that they have a different perspective than we do. Regardless, our relationships are fraught with disappointing results.
Recently, though, it’s dawned on me that maybe some of the disappointment lies in the fact that we are simply expecting too much from each other.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that we lower basic standards. If people lie, steal, cheat, or treat others in any way that violates basic civility and decency, we should hold them accountable. What I’m talking about here that is that as human beings we have a fatal flaw when it comes to how much we believe others should help and unite with us — whether it be physically, psychologically, socially, or spiritually. Although it varies with temperament and experiences, many of us struggle with bitterness and disappointment when others don’t seem to get (or respond to) what we feel we need. There are countless reasons why this might be the case, but deep within our heartache lies a question we must all consider: Are we simply expecting too much of each other?
As the father of seven, it’s interesting (and at times, uncomfortable) to watch my kid’s psychological development unfold. When it comes to our youngest, who’s just under two, his expectations for others are rather straightforward. Simply put, if you meet his basic desires for food, positive attention, and a clean bottom, he’s generally happy.
But as our kids age, it’s clear that their expectations of others increase, both in amount and subtlety. Our oldest (12-year-old twins) are already displaying a complex blend of expectations that are not easily teased out, even by their child psychologist dad and amazing, intuitive mother. Yet tied directly into all of this complexity is a sense that each child’s ego — especially as it relates to how his or her needs will be met — is strongly forming the expectations they will develop for others once they’re adults.
When you learn to rely on others so much at home, work, social circles, and otherwise, even seemingly minor matters can lead to monumental disgust. And although each of us could certainly be more in tune, more caring, and more considerate, I really believe that we have evolved as human beings to rely too much on others to meet our own needs, especially that of a psychological kind. The problem is, not only are most of us not mind readers, but all of us are infallible and imperfect in all sorts of ways.
If this all sounds like a depressing treatise — and I have disappointed your expectations for this article — I offer my apologies. The positive here, though, is that even though human beings were created to be infinitely unpredictable and complex, the world around us — although not on a foolproof schedule — is often predictable and reliable.
Take for instance the fact that we know and experience so much about the natural world (as we still learn more). The other day, my son Noah and I were walking home from church in light snow ahead of the others who had taken the van. It was a simple walk full of great conversation (and no expectations) about winds, precipitation, and many other things related to the weather conditions. In the end, it was joyful because each of us was able to share ways in which the natural world had “brought us in” even when we were alone. Yet, so often, we regard the natural world around us as either a fleeting fancy or an annoyance to overcome (especially in winter). When we do this, in any aspect of our lives, we miss a superabundance of interest, intrigue, and predictability that could otherwise frame and comfort our unpredictable relationships, and lives in general.
Lowering our expectations of others not only reduces the chance for discontentment and frustration, it also opens a corridor to consider what our seemingly mundane world and those in it have to offer.
I’m not suggesting we settle into a somewhat parallel, arranged existence where we resign ourselves to be in less than full communion with others. On the contrary, what I’m suggesting is that if we lower our internal expectations of others, we may become aware of previously unknown joys that are always available no matter what is happening in our personal or public relationships.
Even more, we may find that when we stop expecting that others will meet our every need and want, we may find that slowly, a relationship returns to a place of greater mutuality, understanding, and reason, where we are more grateful than ever for what others provide so that we feel more safe, loved, and understood.