I have been completely overcome with anxiety over the last few weeks, which is incredibly depressing considering this is, in theory, the most wonderful time of the year. The older I get, the more I realize how much expectations (both realized and subconscious) dictate, and sometimes destroy, relationships and experiences.
We all have expectations in some capacity. Some of us have learned to set expectations pretty low because we have been so hurt in the past. I used to think I had given up expectations completely, but then I realized what I had given up on was hope. While the two terms are used interchangeably, there is actually a big difference between expectation and hope, and failing to recognize the difference is dangerous and sometimes destructive.
The basic definition of expectation is “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future.” Having an expectation means believing that something should be true. If I submit my timesheet to my employer, I expect that he will send me a check for time worked because I should be paid and that is the agreement we made when we started working together. After Tim and I had been dating for a while, and had talked about marriage and looked at rings, I expected that he would propose because he said he would and he should follow through on that. Expectation is more of an “if this, then that” equation that can be reduced to logic.
Hope is a little different. The most basic definition of hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Hope is the emotive response to expectation. Hope is more amorphous in its nature, and harder to define or identify. I hope that I get to be a mom one day soon. I hope that Tim’s job is made permanent. I hope that Memphis wins the Liberty Bowl on Saturday and that the Tigers bring glory back to the Liberty Bowl Stadium. Hope involves longing for something over which I have no control.
Having both expectation and hope is a good thing, but we are in danger when we confuse the two. An expectation comes with a certain amount of controllable factors. If I consume less calories than I burn, I can expect to lose weight. I can hope to lose weight, but unless I take some action in the process that is a pretty foolish hope. Problems occur, especially in relationships, when we believe that a hope SHOULD become an expectation.
That word is so tricky. “Should.” It’s kind of a beast, really. That six letter word gets me into more trouble than my ongoing fascination with a burning flame. “Should” is the dynamite under the bridge between hope and expectation. It is almost always tied to shame, and we all know by now how deadly shame can be.
Before I met Tim, I hoped to meet a man who would become my husband. I went on dates to open myself up to the possibility of meeting this man. Hope was distorted when the “shoulds” started rolling in. “I SHOULD be in a relationship. I SHOULD be married by now. I SHOULD be thinner/shorter/taller/prettier/smarter/more successful/less successful/funnier/less funny for someone to love me.”
When Tim and I started dating, my shoulds shifted in his direction and almost destroyed our relationship. I wanted to dump him after he came over for dinner one night because he didn’t take his dishes to the sink. He SHOULD do that, right? Why didn’t he give me flowers more often? He SHOULD do that. Now that we are married, there are shoulds flying all over the place. He should empty the dishwasher! He should fold clothes the RIGHT way! He should have vacuumed if he had 10 free minutes. He should have celebrated my birthday THIS way.
This all came to a head at Christmas when my SHOULDS fell out all over the place. Since we spent Christmas in Memphis with my family last year, we committed to spending Christmas in Fort Myers Beach with his parents this year. That seems fair, right? I didn’t think much of it until we got to his parents’ condo and nothing was what it “should” have been. I had, subconsciously, developed an expectation that his family should celebrate Christmas the exact same way that my family does. I had hoped to really enjoy this time with my new husband and his parents, but my hope was destroyed by the shoulds of unmet expectations. By Christmas Eve, my face was buried in Tim’s chest as I cried for a good 30 minutes before passing out. I missed my family, my stocking, my Christmas Eve dinner, my family jokes, and the way I thought Christmas should be.
Tim thought he had done something wrong by bringing me to Fort Myers for Christmas. I assured him that neither he nor his parents had done anything wrong. In fact, they had given us a lovely Christmas. I had just been so wrapped up in the way I thought things should be, that I failed to enjoy the reality in front of me.
I have realized that most of my recent stress and anxiety (and consequential health issues and lack of sleep) can be traced back to shoulding myself. I do it all the time. I create completely unrealistic expectations which are not based in reality at all, and then I confuse those for hope and am devastated when these things don’t come to pass. I am learning to decipher between what I hope for and what I can expect. I can expect Tim to clean the kitchen if I tell him I need help with that because he always follows through when I ask him for help. But if I expect to come home to a spotless apartment when neither of us has been home all day or I have not communicated my need for help, then I am fooling myself.
Author Terry Pratchett is credited with saying, “There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.” I need to write this in large print all over our home, on the back of my hand, and in my heart. If I am not aware of the reality of my current circumstances, I will completely lose myself in unmet expectations, “shoulds”, and misdirected hopes. I will constantly be let down by life and by others if I refuse to accept the world as it is, and stop hoping for what it could be.
Ideally, “should” will start to disappear from my vocabulary in the coming new year. At least I hope it will.