Each time you base your self-image, self-esteem and every thought, feeling, need, desire or expectation on the premise that you’re responsible for other people’s feelings and behaviour, you give away your power. How much room you have in your life for people who mistreat you comes from your level of self-respect. That respect reflects on the line you draw with others, affecting how much they negatively impact you.

Do you feel as if you’re always walking and battling amongst shady folk? Are you regularly giving yourself a hard time over unmet expectations? Ask yourself: How much compassion do I have? How much of my time, energy, efforts and emotions–my bandwidth–do I spend being self-critical, judgemental and punishing? And how much time do I spend trying to gain strokes (praise, validation, esteem, etc.) from others?

When we’re miserable due to people not meeting our expectations, some of our pain is about the actual deed. Much of our pain, however, is 1) the story we tell ourselves now that we know that this person isn’t meeting our expectations and 2) our unrealistic, possibly inappropriate, expectations. Even though it might not seem like it at the time, our disappointment from unmet expectations is a much-needed wake-up call. It’s a nod from life telling us to shift our thinking and question our habits.

Expectations are strongly held beliefs about what we think could, should or will happen.

These predictions, including how we interact with them and how we respond to mismatched expectations, have their roots in our emotional baggage, including trauma. We internalise ideas and rules about how the world works. We then organise our behaviour around these to feel in control. 

While expectations can be a way of creating standards that guide us towards healthier boundaries, we often use them to manipulate and control people and situations. We take our beliefs and rules and use our perception of desirable behaviour to try and generate desirable outcomes. 

I will do X, people will do Y in response, and Z (my desired outcome) will happen. 

When we don’t root our expectations in healthy boundaries, we keep repeating the past. We also avoid vulnerability and do things to get something in return or to avoid what we don’t want. For instance, when we compromise ourselves to hold onto a relationship and then they hurt us anyway. That outcome isn’t what we expected given what we did to try to get this person to meet our expectations. 

And it’s the things we do to try to get others to meet our expectations where we bust ours and other people’s boundaries. 

We get mad at people for not being ‘like us’. After people pleasing, we feel aggrieved that they’re not being the version of themselves we think we’re owed. Ultimately, we struggle because they haven’t lived up to the picture we’ve painted in our minds.

Who a person is and what they do is their actions, not the manifestation of our worthiness, people pleasing or ability to be perfect.

If someone’s actions run counter to our expectations or even what they’ve promised or inferred, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall by ignoring this data and opting for the dream. 

People say to me, They haven’t called, apologised, or made things good. They haven’t even tried to be the person they could be or who they made themselves out to be at the start. I don’t get it. Isn’t it what they should be doing? What kind of person must I be if this is how they’re behaving?

These people are falling victim to their own expectations and calling it something the other person is doing. But they’re beating themselves up over a fantasy. Their attitude extends their torment because they’re disappointed by a fantasy while rejecting reality. 

We have to be present if we want to treat ourselves and others with love, care, trust and respect. There’s a vulnerability in acknowledging that someone isn’t living up to the fantasy of our expectations. We’ll have to grieve the disappointment and show up in a way that respects the boundary created by the truth. But in being willing to recognise where our expectations trip us up, we can stop trapping ourselves in old stories and rules that don’t serve us. Ultimately, the wake-up call and release of painful expectations liberate us.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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