Through my work as a counsellor and my own personal therapy, I've come to wonder if expectations are at the heart of most of our emotional crises. The majority of the time we're probably not aware that we even have any expectations and yet pretty much all life events or relationships and our enjoyment (or not) of them rely on our predetermined openness to experiencing them.
A very obvious example of this was my experience following the birth of my first child. Of course, such a momentous life event rarely happens without some level of pre planning, dreaming, imagining, worrying and maybe even fearing and there are no end of resources out there designed to help new parents prepare for their imminent arrival. I learned the hard way that no matter how many ante natal classes I attended or books I devoured, nothing prepared me for the reality. Now, 15 years later, I reflect on this time and realise that way way before I was even pregnant, I had dreamed of what being a mother would be like. I can't remember a time when I hadn't felt anticipation and hope about having children. I'd had plenty of experience looking after babies when I was young so the practical stuff like changing nappies, dressing, burping, feeding, swaddling was, as far as I was concerned in the bag. I felt breezily confident that I knew how to care for a baby and the reading and the classes I attended were all my way of indulging my excitement and a way of paying attention to the very thing I had dreamed of for so long. There is also no denying that there was an expectation I had absorbed wholly and fully that I observe certain rituals whilst pregnant and reading the right books and attending the classes were all part of that - I am nothing if not a rule follower! The point is that all these expectations regarding being a mother and having a child were so firmly entrenched in me, were so well established and a part of me that when my first born arrived, I experienced the crushing realisation that despite years of anticipation, I was in fact facing a reality that was beyond anything I could have imagined. The birth, the love that was so powerful it hurt, the responsibility, the knowledge that life as I knew it was over and perhaps, most significant of all the fact that having a child triggered a grieving process for my mum who had died many years before were so unexpected and I was so ill equipped to deal with them that a tortuous few years grappling with post natal depression and anxiety ensued.
5 years later, I found myself in the 3rd trimester of my 3rd pregnancy in a labour ward giving birth to a baby I knew had died in utero. Whilst I had many times feared this happening (thank you anxiety, my faithful and solid companion) the only expectations I was aware of should such a thing happen were about how I would cope - namely that I wouldn't. How many times have we heard or even said ourselves 'I wouldn't be able to cope if that happened to me'. This expectation about our own ability to adapt to awful situations is derived from fear and pays no regard to who we are, the resources we tap in to automatically when we need to, the powerful societal expectations to 'get on with it', the needs and demands of others that we are driven to fulfill which overpowers our desire to give up and in short, our ability to survive what we expect will destroy us.
The example above is extreme and sometimes we can have negative expectations that thankfully result in the actual experience being a good one. Planning and preparing for an event is no bad thing but what we can't always prepare for is how we will feel. We bring ourselves to every interaction, event or relationship in our lives. This means that every previous experience, every belief that's been introjected into us, every understanding that we've absorbed about the world, every defence mechanism we've adopted in order to feel safe and cope, every rule that we've learned is brought to every single thing we do. In my example above about the birth of my first child, I brought to that event some practical skills yes but also many years of suppressed grief, a belief system about how to be a parent and a whole host of other ideals and understandings about the world and it was precisely that that made my experience what it was. It was totally unique to me. Had I had a different background and expectations, the experience might not have been easier but it certainly would have been different.
As babies and young children we learn and grow through our environment. Our parents, family, friends, school, siblings all teach us our place in the world and how to fit in and adapt. Later in life, when we deal with relationships or job interviews or whatever it may be, we have an internalised understanding of how to present ourselves but also what to expect back from these situations. All to often, life doesn't match our expectations because as I pointed out earlier they are so unique to us. Everyone else is bringing their stuff to the party and it can be difficult or baffling to comprehend others views or actions without understanding their entire back story.
There is no way of making ourselves a blank slate and it would be unhelpful and unrealistic to either stop having hopes and dreams altogether or to lower our expectations. They are what keeps us moving forward and they're vital to our existence not least because we're often unaware that we even have them. Awareness of what's going on for you and why you're feeling what you do in any given circumstance is, in my opinion the key. It is through awareness that acceptance (which in turn leads to change) can be brought about. Once we have a firm footing in who we are, it is only then that we can make changes towards who we'd like to be.