Growing up, I expected people, including myself, to do the right thing. Being raised in a Christian home and being taught that I must obey Jesus and all that he said meant being a “good Christian girl.” In my mind that meant doing what those in authority told me to do without question. That included my parents, of course, and my pastor, teachers, and the elderly. So I strived to do my best with the intent that doing good would result in others being happy. That was my expectation.
What I did not know as a kid and even for many years as an adult, was that I did not have control of what others felt or thought. I would become frustrated when others would not appreciate my good deed that I sacrificially gave to them. I would sacrifice my time for a friend who would later turn their back on me and walk away. I would go above and beyond in cleaning the house in hopes of a smile and a thank you, which would not come every time. I would try my best to remember to gather up all my things when on a field trip, only to realize I forgot something and I would be told, “If your head wasn’t attached, you would forget it too.” I would try to see the work around me to carry out my responsibilities on the job, only to hear in my annual evaluation that I was not carrying my load of responsibilities. I would expect a pastor to listen and care for the needs of his flock, only to hear, “You are not welcome here.”
I was expecting others to be loving, caring and kind to me in the same way I was trying to be loving, caring and kind to others. I was also expecting myself to be perfect in all I did and be praised for it. This all led me to feeling worse about myself and being resentful towards others.
A dear friend explained it to me this way using a visual. Holding one hand up high with palm down, she told me, “This is your expectation, which is set high.” Holding her other hand below the first hand with palm up and about a two foot space between them, she told me, “This is what really happens.” Then she asked me, “What does that two foot space between the hands feel like?” I rattled off feelings such as disappointment, discouragement, frustration, hurt, this is not fair, and anger. She summed it all up in one word – Misery! Yep, that nailed it – I am miserable when my expectations go unmet.
Then my friend asked me, “What can you change?” I quickly realized I cannot control others or get them to change or do what I want them to do. Heck, I can’t even get myself to perform perfectly! That is reality! So I had to look at my expectations. Were they realistic? Hmmm? Well truth be told, I was expecting others to be perfect along with myself. I was denying my common humanity with others and myself. You see, as humans we are all imperfect and we all make mistakes, poor choices, and we hurt each other. So I had to respond that I can only change my expectations.
My friend then began to slowly move the top hand down and closer to the lower hand. As I observed the space between the two hands get smaller, she asked, “What happens to the misery?” I responded, “It gets smaller.” Exactly! When my expectations are realistic, I am less likely to experience that misery that can lead to resentment.
“Every unrealistic expectation is a resentment waiting to happen.” ~ Father Richard Rohr
I’ve come to learn that all I have the power to change is myself which includes my expectations. It is unrealistic to think that I can always please others through my actions, sacrifices and words. I realized I was speaking to myself in a critical way with statements such as get your act together, shape up, and work harder, along with putting myself down because I couldn’t do it right. I was resenting myself!
In addition, my expectations concerning others doing “the right thing” (who defines that anyway!) was not acknowledging that they are human too; plus they can’t read my mind. I was allowing my unrealistic expectations of others to lead me to resenting them.
So, as I have learned to set more realistic expectations along with giving myself and others mercy and grace, I have much less misery in my life. I am free to accept reality that I live in a world that is broken and sinful, and that God loves me and everyone else in spite of our behaviors and words. And God forgives us and asks us to forgive ourselves and others.
Jesus understood this as he walked on the earth.
“But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” John 2:24-25 NIV
Jesus knew that everyone that was following him during his ministry would in time deny knowing him and reject him. He also knew what was in a person’s heart.
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 NIV
Jesus did not set unrealistic expectations on the people he encountered. What he did was to help them and us today to realize we already know the truth about ourselves (we are imperfect and we sin) and we can take action, with his help and guidance, to choose a new path to take. We no longer need to hold on to our misery and resentment. We can let go of it, giving those unrealistic expectations and misery to Jesus, and choose to forgive, love and care for each other.
I’m still learning this lesson. So please be patient with me as I continue to evaluate my expectations, change them to be more realistic, and choose to love others and myself in the same way Jesus loves us – without conditions!