There are a few things I can think of that I would love a second crack at in life. I would love to be able to travel back in time and fix some things that didn’t go quite as planned. Sure, it would be great to go back and invest in Apple or Facebook, but what about something more subtle and seemingly insignificant as your expectations? The two areas that come to mind for me in regards to expectations are pastoral ministry and marriage. If there are two areas of my life that I have messed up more than any others through unhealthy expectations it would be these two.
Just because we expect, or wish, something to happen doesn’t make it happen or make it come true. Psychologist call this “magical thinking.” Magical thinking is thinking that if I just believe the “right things,” then right things will happen to and for me. Like if I expect great weather and today happens to have great weather, then somehow I helped that happen. Psychologist once believed that children eventually grow out of this form of thinking. My experience and observations would suggest that some of us never out grow it. As you can imagine, this type of thinking is dangerous and sets us up for a lifetime of potential disappointments through unrealistic expectations.
What About Sowing and Reaping?
Is the biblical concept of reaping what we have sown a practice in projecting expectations? Yes, to a certain degree we can expect certain things to happen in a cause and effect manor. For instance, if I plant strawberries, take good care of what I have planted, I can reasonably expect to harvest strawberries at some time in the future. Magical thinking is more like me thinking very positively about planting strawberries and expecting them to grow and produce, even though the truth is I never actually planted them to begin with.
So what about the expectations we have in our relationships with others? The expectations we often place on our relationships (like in marriage or friendships) are often not grounded in reality, but rather closer to wishful or magical thinking. The sort of expectations we struggle with in regards to our interpersonal relationships can be far more sinister and rooted in self-delusion. To expect to have a great relationship with some one just because you desire it, won’t actually produce a great relationship. Great relationships are not formed by thoughts alone. Expecting someone to “love you till death do us part” is romantic but not entirely based in reality. Simply expecting this without any sort of commitment and practice of daily dying to self and to selflessly love another will not magically produce a mutually loving relationship.
Unrealistic expectations of self and others destroy loving relationships and create a sense of entitlement in the one who has them. I have found this especially true when it comes to unhealthy and unrealistic expectations I have placed on myself, those I love and even those I lead. You see, expectations are relationship killers. They not only do damage to others but they damage our own souls and create an unhealthy sense of entitlement. The emotions and thoughts go like this… Because I did/do or feel/think ___________________ I deserve, or should get ______________________. This is a form of false love and a trap for everyone involved. Real love puts no added or extra conditions on it to be validated.
Thank God that he doesn’t treat us the same way we treat ourselves and others! God actually loves and accepts us despite our inability to love him fully and faithfully in return. Love does not demand or expect a response in order to be initiated or given. Healthy love gives with no strings attached and with no expectations for reciprocation. Love naturally reciprocates without any guilt, shame or manipulations. Love doesn’t have to demand it’s own way or that someone gives us something equal or better in response.
“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
The Way Things “Ought to Be”
“Oughts” and “Shoulds” are never enough! This way of thinking is largely due to our own perceptions of the way culture, the Church or others, have shaped our concepts of the way things like marriage (or even ministry for me) should and shouldn’t be. 1 John 3:16 says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters..” Words and good intentions, i.e. “Oughts” and “Shoulds” are expectations in disguise and are not enough on their own apart from proven actions. John goes on to clarify true love saying, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).” We have to be willing to lay our expectations down on the altar of self.
3 Suggestions for Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations
- Live in and accept reality. It’s easy for us to NOT live in, or ignore, reality about a person or a situation, hoping that they will do what we want them to do. This only leads to more hurt, pain and disillusionment. Ask yourself, “Is it true?” Whatever the answer is, accept the truth about it and be willing to let go and love even when it’s hard.
- Let go of pride and entitlement. Expectations are often based in false reality and our ego’s desire to get from people what we think we need and want. When people become a means to an end instead of the ends themselves, everyone looses.
- Love without conditions. Remember and embrace the grace of God and his unconditional love for you, then give that to others. Love by it’s very nature must be unconditional, or it is not love.
In what ways have your unrealistic expectations sabotaged your life and relationships?