There are an awful lot of people walking around feeling unhappy, frustrated, angry and upset because their expectations weren’t met in one way or another. It’s a tricky thing to manage our expectations. On the one hand, you don’t want to expect the worst all the time or you’ll spend your life miserable, even when things turn out great. On the other hand, most people don’t have the stamina to be continually nursing wounds from unrealistically hopeful expectations.
Let me tell you about a really amazing client I had early in my career. Her name was Laura and she had the most astute perspective on this topic of expectations and the fallout that we’re often met with when they’re not realized. But first, let me tell you a little bit more about her.
Laura and her husband were amicably separated and sharing custody of their daughter, raising her together from a distance. On this day, all three of them were there to create some family portraits, and honestly, it wasn’t going super well. A future version of myself would have known just what to do to turn the session around, but this was quite early in my career and it was a skill I hadn’t acquired yet. Laura, as always, was maintaining a really great attitude, and a vocal appreciation for how hard I was working—even though it was quite clear she wasn’t getting what she was hoping for out of this session. Her daughter was feeling feisty and obstinate, and the girl’s father was dealing with some crisis at work and was on and off the phone every few minutes.
Laura struck me as this unusually calm and collected person. In every interaction I shared with her, she was kind, patient and understanding, though not afraid to express some disappointment. She wasn’t one to put on a show. Speaking with her, you’d really get the sense that she was being genuine in her enthusiasm or dissatisfaction, and It just so happened that she seemed to spend a lot more of her time feeling enthusiastic and optimistic than she did feeling disappointed.
It wasn’t until later that I grew an interest in understanding why this person—someone with plenty of complicated, and probably at times frustrating or even angering, things in her life—was able to maintain such a calm, positive outlook, while others who seem to have an objectively easier time go on and on moaning and complaining. When I finally started to think about it (shortly after reading Dan Siegel’s Mindsight), something Laura had said to me stuck out.
She said, “The only safe expectations are the expectations you have for yourself.”
I think she touched on a critical principle with that off the cuff remark; a philosophy I’ve tried to adopt, and one that I’ve tried to impart on my friends and clients, in as much as I am able to do so.
So lets unpack that a little bit.
Our expectations are the gap in the armor around our emotional vulnerability. When we have expectations of someone or something outside of ourselves, those people and things hold the power to hurt us. This is what Laura meant. But it was more than that, she was saying that while there’s nothing we can do about others who fail us, we can have expectations about how we’ll respond to them if they do. Laura didn’t have any specific expectations about how her daughter or her daughter’s father would behave. She only had expectations about how she would behave. If she had expected her daughter to be a perfectly behaved, she’d have spent the whole session very anxious and maybe angry. If she’d expected her daughter to be really difficult, she might’ve been rigid and stern and caused the very thing she was trying to prevent. Expectations about her daughter’s behavior was a narrow path between two very unpleasant experiences. So she chose instead to set her expectations on herself.
We could all stand to be a little more like Laura in this regard. Unfortunately though, most of us don’t even realize we have expectations of someone or something until we realize they’re going unmet. Hindsight is the worst time to learn about your expectations. Now, I’m no psychologist, but it strikes me that knowing we are almost certainly, unconsciously, forming expectations in our mind is a very good reason to spend some time finding out what they are.
One additional thing to consider, and which perhaps Laura has (justifiably) lost sight of—expecting the best of the people we love and care about, and who love and care about us, means giving them the power to hurt us sometimes, and trusting them not to. Not everyone we meet should be trusted in that way, so managing our expectations of others is as important as not blurting out your worst fears to total strangers. And likewise, expecting the best of those who have earned our trust may be just as important as letting them in on those quiet things that keep us up at night.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so lets start a discussion. You can find me on Twitter!
Now, back to photography.