A common trait between you, me, and everyone else in the world is that we all crave to be wanted. It feels good when people admire us, listen to us, and want to spend time with us. Thus, we try to do things to spur this interest and fascination with us. We dress up so people will notice us, work hard so people respect us, buy nice things so people envy us, and so much more. In many ways, we try to either meet or exceed expectations set by other people or by ourselves.
At the start of high school, I was a very shy kid with a lot of insecurities and I struggled to find anything positive to like about myself. I prided myself on one thing though, and that was my ability to get good grades. I had relatively strict parents growing up and they expected me to do very well in school. As a result, I made it my responsibility to get good grades by working very hard. At first, I reached academic expectations so that I could please my parents. They had a positive expectation of me that I wanted to satisfy. Then, I realized that by getting good grades, I could also look better to other people. People would think that I was smart because I worked hard and got results, and that to me meant I was a more appealing person. I absolutely loved feeling this praise as an extremely self conscious kid. I made it an expectation of myself to get good grades and scores because I thought it played a big role in determining my worth as a person. Then I realized, if I was not achieving, I lost praise and along with it, my sense of self worth.
As I continued to work harder and harder towards this praise by getting good grades, I saw myself drifting further and further away from my goals, my ambitions, my hobbies, and anything I really enjoyed. I would work and do nothing else. This lifestyle led me to complain to my parents that I didn’t have a life or a passion. As a consequence of internalizing an expectation, I was losing myself in exchange for external praise. This desire of mine to seek external validation led to me feeling burnt out and depressed.
My insecurities in school were in part due to the fact that I was bullied for being overweight. People would make fat jokes about me, they’d poke me and shove me around, and roast me a lot. Even though I can laugh about it today, the bullying showed me that there was a social expectation to be skinny and, as a result, I saw it as my responsibility to achieve this ideal. I started going on diets and at first they were really helpful. A year passed by the time I was satisfied with the way I looked, and I had lost a total of fifty-five pounds. Losing weight made me feel good, but I was so caught up in losing weight for other people, that I did not focus on losing it in a way that was healthy for me. It became difficult for me to eat normally because for the past year I had been eating so little. My relationship with food became increasingly worse as I began to associate food with weight gain. I also started having a lack of energy because I wasn’t eating enough. The process left me sad, tired, and unsatisfied with my body in any state it was.
The dangers of internalizing expectations are as follows. How many of these can you say you have experienced yourself?
- Burnout: internalizing too much pressure leads to overworking and burnout
- Depression: feeling inadequate in the face of an unrealistic goal can be morale crushing
- Anxiety: fear that arises from feeling obligated to reach high expectations
- Self-denial: convincing yourself you're practicing self care when you are not, and pretending like giving in to expectations is in your best interest
- Procrastination: unhealthy habits lead to poor discipline and more procrastination
- Laziness: from knowing you can't achieve an unrealistic goal, to refusing to try in other aspects of your life too
- Isolation: fear that stems from being unable to satisfy an expectation, making you stay away from others to avoid judgement or rejection
- Having a fake personality: to satisfy social expectations
- Explosive behavior: from feeling like you can't express themselves truly because it doesn’t satisfy a social expectation
I can honestly admit that I have experienced all of the above. I wanted to change these behaviors though, so I made the following changes that dramatically improved my quality of life.
- Write down your expectations of yourself
- When you write down your expectations you have of yourself, they feel less real. When I did this, I realized that I wouldn’t expect most of the stuff on my list from anyone else, so why should I expect it from myself? Being able to visualize these thoughts makes them seem smaller than they really are. It makes you realize some of the expectations you internalize are overblown.
- Have a support system
- A support system is a group of non-judgemental people who love you unconditionally and do NOT place expectations on you. This is a group of people who will treat you with love and respect and who you can be 100% open with 100% of the time. For me, this was my family. Initially I doubted my family’s ability to be non-judgemental but they were more than able to because they had unconditional love for me.
- Compliment yourself and practice gratitude
- A really good skill that my family taught me is to identify five things I like about myself every morning. This made me feel more confident, which helped me stop caring about what others wanted from me. When I started practicing gratitude, I felt I had everything that I needed in my life, thus I didn’t have to meet a lot of external expectations. I thought of five to ten things I was grateful for every morning, and then repeated that at night.
- Make time for yourself
- Everyone needs time to rest. Rest is not just physical though, we all need mental rest too. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unhappy, take some time to do something that makes you happy (maybe even with your support system), because it gives you the ability to identify your own wants and needs.
Internalizing expectations is something we all need to do a little less. We all want to feel special, but we do not need to meet expectations that others have of us to be loved. People like us for being ourselves, so instead of focusing our time on pleasing others, let's identify what makes us happy. Let's live OUR best lives.