Do you ever feel like you’re living someone else’s life, not your own? Do you find it hard to let go of other peoples expectations?
Are you drowning under the weight of other people’s expectations?
Do you sometimes feel like you’ve lost touch with what you really want from life because you’re trying to keep everyone else happy?
Where do expectations come from?
Modern life is tough.
There’s no doubt that people have always had to deal with the expectations of others but, somehow, our current society seems to pile the pressure on more than ever before.
Television, films, print and social media are all used – to some degree – to push the myth of the ‘perfect’ life.
On a daily basis, we’re presented with messages about what it takes to be the perfect mother, the perfect business owner, the perfect woman and so on.
It’s not just the media that burdens us with expectations.
Our families, friends, children, communities, networks, cultures and even distant acquaintances can all have pre-conceived ideas about who we are, what we should do and how we should behave.
Other people’s expectations can create frustration – they wonder why you’re not living up to what they want and you feel like you’re constantly failing. They also cause conflict – while trying to please one person, you end up disappointing someone else.
It’s a thankless cycle and you deserve more.
The perils of seeking perfection
Of course, other people’s expectations are hard to overcome.
When you’re presented with something as though it’s reality for other people often enough, it’s natural to buy into the belief that everyone else is achieving more, doing more or simply being more than you.
This can leave us feeling really vulnerable and insignificant.
But chasing perfection is futile. For a start, perfection looks different to everyone – would you recognise it, even if it truly existed?
It’s also like aiming for a moving target. People’s expectations shift, and society’s expectations shift even more dramatically. Just when you feel like you’ve attained what people expect of you, the goal posts will move.
It’s no wonder so many of us feel exhausted!
There are other problems with expectations too – they create anticipation for the future, and anticipation means that we experience things before they happen.
If you don’t meet up to expectations, you will feel like you’ve failed and, if you do live up to them, you won’t feel the joy of surprise or achieving the unexpected.
Other people’s expectations can also make you question yourself and lose focus.
Whether you have a parent telling you to go out and get a ‘proper job’ instead of setting up a business or even a child lamenting that you’re always working, it can chip away at your confidence.
Your thoughts take a negative turn… “Maybe I should look for a 9-5 job”, “Who am I to think I can run a business?”, “I’m such a crap mum”, etc. etc.
Your head is occupied with these negative, repetitive thoughts instead of focusing on where you want to be.
You can’t please everyone
The problem with trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations is that you can’t make everyone happy.
What’s the saying?
“You can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”
Worse still, when you’re trying to make sure everyone else is happy, it’s almost impossible to be happy with yourself.
Letting go of other people’s expectations
Letting go of other people’s expectations doesn’t usually happen overnight.
Often, when we’ve been bending over backwards to please everyone else, we end up losing sight of what would truly make us feel happy and fulfilled.
If you’ve always shaped your life around other people’s opinions and input (whether from your parents, a partner, your children, teachers, colleagues, a boss or friends), pinpointing what you want, feel and believe can be surprisingly hard.
But it is possible.
Here’s a few tips to letting go of other people’s expectations and creating realistic, fair expectations of yourself:
Steps to you can take to create realistic expectations
1. Practice self-care
Self-care is about more than having a bubble bath or reading for pleasure at the end of a long day.
In reality, it’s about facing up to your life and putting a plan in action to change or nurture the things that affect your wellbeing (be it creating more positives or eliminating more negatives). It’s about finding a way out of debt, cooking nutritious meals or spending time with people who treat you well.
It’s about creating a life that you don’t regularly want or need to escape from.
And one of the first ways to practice self-care is to let go of other people’s expectations. You may have to disappoint someone; you may have to say no but that’s OK.
2. Speak to yourself with the kindness you would show a friend
When you’re struggling with the weight of other people’s expectations, your thoughts can become bogged down with ideas about what you ‘should’ and ‘must’ do, as well as what you ‘can’t’ achieve.
This means the voice inside your head can become mean and critical, a running commentary of your failings.
Would you speak to your best friend the way you speak to yourself? Or to your child?
I imagine that if someone spoke to one of your children the way you talk to yourself internally, you’d be horrified. It would bring out the Tiger mama in you.
Well, this is the time to parent yourself with kindness, to speak to yourself with the compassion and understanding you would give a best friend.
I read once that self-compassion is like fresh oxygen for the mind. It releases oxytocin, the ‘happy’ hormone and lifts your mood. Give it a try.
3. Recognise that other people’s expectations aren’t really about you
When one person sets expectations of another person, it’s often because they assume everyone thinks the same way as them or because they need validation and approval about their own decisions.
For example, if someone has told you that you should ‘go out and get a proper job’, it might be because they want to reinforce that they were right to stay in their own job, even if it didn’t fulfil them in the same way that being self-employed fulfils you.
Also, expectations are about control, they’re about saying, “I want this particular outcome” and I expect you to help me achieve it.
The key is to recognise that you don’t have to want the same outcomes as other people. You are not a tool to be used for someone else’s gain.
4. Trust your gut
When you do or say anything, take a moment to consider how it feels on an instinctive or ‘gut’ level. Does it feel right, good and truthful to who you are or does it feel uncomfortable?
If something feels off – often with physical symptoms such as a churning stomach or faster heart rate, it probably isn’t right for you and may well reflect someone else’s expectations rather than your own intentions.
5. Be open to what you could achieve
Other people’s expectations can hold us back in so many ways.
For example, you may have been brought up with a ‘scarcity’ or ‘lack’ mentality around money – the belief that you’re destined to be poor or that there will never be enough money to do what you want to do.
With this expectation drilled into you before you were old enough to question it, you may avoid investing in yourself or your business. You may feel you have to stay in an unhappy relationship or an unfulfilling job because you’ll never earn enough to take a different path.
But what if you started looking at things a different way?
What if you decided you could achieve more with a plan in place to help you? And then what if you went about creating and sticking to the plan?
Small changes can make a big difference. Recognise that you have potential.
6. Set boundaries and restate them when you need to
When we build our lives around other’s expectations, we often don’t put boundaries in place. People are able to voice their opinions without being asked or drop things on you at the last minute with no consideration of how that might impact on you.
Practice naming your limits. This can be challenging if you’re not used to setting boundaries, but you are allowed to state what you can tolerate and accept, as well as what you can’t.
If you feel uncomfortable or resentful about something, it’s a big clue that a boundary has been breached. Give yourself permission to say no; you may need to restate your boundaries from time to time.
7. Set realistic goals
The myth of perfection means that we end up thinking that we should always be happy, fulfilled, busy, doing something worthwhile, living Instagram-ready moments during every waking minute of the day.
We feel like our life should be full of big defining moments and accomplishments.
We need to be the best mum, run the best business, or even just make the biggest splash at a networking event. It’s all about comparing yourself to others and coming out on top.
Life becomes a tick list of accomplishments.
Do well at school. Go to university. Meet someone. Get married. Buy a house. Have two children. Get rich. Travel the world. Retire at 50… with no blueprint for how to do these things or even why they’re right for you.
Reality is more mundane. It’s made up of small moments, the things that happen while we’re busy making plans.
So, instead of the huge goals, letting go of other people’s expectations lets you set smaller, more realistic goals based on what’s right for you.
Instead of thinking happiness is waiting somewhere in the future, when you’ve ticked off every item on the list, you can start to find happiness in the here and now.
8. Celebrate your victories
As we mentioned above, expectations set you up to seek perfection. Even when you achieve something, other people’s expectations can overshadow your accomplishments. Instead, you’re always looking around the corner for the next thing you need to tick off your to-do list.
Try to take time to celebrate your victories, big and small. You don’t have to hold a party or declare a national holiday but give yourself a moment to acknowledge every achievement. That way you can begin to see yourself as someone who gets things done, who makes things happen and who is capable.
9. Own your choices
When you live your life based on other people’s expectations, it’s easy to feel like life is something that’s happening to you rather than something you have a say in shaping.
Like a rudderless boat, you feel you’re powerless against the tide.
But this can leave you feeling like an incidental character in your own life story.
When you own your choices in life, you can begin to let go of other people’s expectations. You stop being someone things happen to and become the hero with flaws and unique superpowers.
Start small and work up
As with any new skill, letting go of expectations takes practice. It’s like a muscle that you need to exercise and strengthen before it feels easy to use it.
So give yourself permission to start small if you need to.
Acknowledge that there is pressure in our current society to fit a template but that sometimes the best works of art are those that break the mould.
Challenge your thoughts and pay attention to your feelings. I bet you’ll find that your body knows what you need, even if you think your mind doesn’t.
If something makes you feel uncomfortable or resentful, ask yourself whether what you’re doing is because of what other people expect of you or what you want for yourself?
Make a list of the pressures in your life and then think about how you could relieve them.
Ask for help if you need to.
Remember that ‘no’ is a complete sentence – you don’t have to justify if something doesn’t work for you.
At the same time, practice letting go of the expectations you have for other people. You’ll both feel better for it.
What expectations do you want to let go of? Are other people’s opinions holding you back? I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the Comments section below.