Are You Expecting Too Much of Yourself and Others?
The dance of perfectionism and shame
Hello & welcome to another edition of Beyond Self Improvement!
Last Wednesday, I shared the good things that happen when you surrender to life. The comments are beautiful because the beyond self improvement community shows up with hearts open.
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“You know what your problem is, Ryan,” my manager said as I reached for his office door after our meeting. “You expect too much out of people.” He’s right. I do expect too much out of people. Is it that obvious? I turned to look at him.
“You see,” he continued while rising from his office chair, pulling up his trousers, and walking around to the front of his desk. “I used to have high expectations too. Then I learned to expect about seventy percent out of people. Now I’m no longer disappointed because people almost always meet my expectations.” His posture was easy, and his smile confident. Could it really be that simple?
I walked back to my desk that sat to one side of an open floor plan before floor plans were cool and later uncool.
In 2014, at 46, Mo Gawdat, then the Chief Business Officer of Google X, was at the height of his career. But the unexpected death of his twenty-one-year-old son, Ali, during a routine appendectomy changed his life forever.
Mo searched for answers to life’s most pressing questions, including understanding happiness. In typical Silicon Valley fashion, he developed a formula: Happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between your perception of the events of your life and your expectations of how life should behave.
Separately, Tim Urban and Andrew Finn, the founders of the popular blog, Wait But Why, came up with an even simpler model: Happiness = Reality - Expectations.
These formulas make perfect sense. The higher your expectations, the more likely disappointment will visit you. And the lower your expectations, the less likely disappointment will visit you. In other words, the more you align with reality, the happier you will be. The less you align with reality, the less happy you will be.
"All human unhappiness comes from not facing reality squarely, exactly as it is.” — Buddha
My manager was right. I had high standards for everything and everyone—friends, family, bosses, coworkers, neighbors, store clerks, acquaintances, wait staff, and customer service. I expected life to go my way and give me all I ever wanted without working especially hard for it. I was naive and unhappy. The front wheels of my car, so to speak, were out of alignment with the reality of the road.
I expected a lot of others because I expected a lot of myself. I was hard on myself, always striving for more or better. I thought if I read enough books, ran and biked enough miles, and worked enough hours, I could meet the expectations of my inner dictator.
Counterintuitively, the more I pushed myself, the less likely I was to succeed. But what else could I do? How would I achieve my goals and realize my dreams without high expectations? How could I find the contentment I sought without striving for more?
But struggling for perfection meant I was regularly disappointed—in myself, others, and life. This lead to self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy and never being enough. I became frustrated, angry, and resentful. Why was life so difficult?
“I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep my expectations.” — Bill Watterson
I thought I knew how life should be and tried to fit situations to my expectations. Although I disliked myself and self-condemnation was painful, I was too preoccupied with my dilemma to surrender. If I gave up my preoccupation with struggle, what would there be to hold onto?
I lacked the confidence to know what I was about that would have allowed me to risk opening myself up to disappointment. I was unwilling to relinquish my hopes, fears, and expectations. If I had allowed myself to experience disappointment, I would have seen that my expectations were irrelevant to the reality of my situation.
Years later, I realized shame was driving my high expectations.
Professor, researcher, and author Brené Brown writes in her book Atlas of the Heart that shame is one of the places we go when we fall short. Here’s how she defines shame: “I am bad. The focus is on self, not behavior. The result is feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. Shame is not a driver of positive change.”
Shame is universal, one of the most primitive emotions we all experience yet avoid discussing. But the less we talk about shame, the more it controls us.
Here’s how early research participants described shame:
Shame is raging at my kids.
Shame is bankruptcy.
Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife.
Shame is my husband leaving me for my next-door neighbor.
Shame is my DUI.
Shame is infertility.
Shame is internet porn.
Shame is not making partner.
Shame is flunking out of school. Twice.
We can feel shame about something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal we haven’t lived up to, or a goal we haven’t accomplished. We feel unlovable and unworthy of belonging and connection. Shame convinces us that we are alone and thrives in judgment, secrecy, and silence.
Setting high expectations of myself and others was a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring I could never reach my ideals. Unmet expectations allowed me to judge others and myself. I was too self-absorbed in my own sorrow to empathize with others and was only concerned with them to the extent that I felt they were judging me.
Perfectionism comes from shame. Unlike healthy striving, perfectionism “is externally driven by a simple but potentially all-consuming question: What will people think?”
The antidote to shame is empathy. Shame is dissolved when we share our experiences of shame with others, and they respond with empathy. But before we can feel safe enough to reveal our shame to others, first we need to be compassionate with ourselves.
So how do you know if you have shame? One way is to notice how often you use the word should, as in “I should exercise more” or “I shouldn’t be so lazy." Another indicator is how you talk to yourself: "I’m such an idiot!” or “I can never calculate a tip.”
Today, I have almost no expectations of myself or others. I don't take it personally when someone takes three weeks to reply to an email. I don't criticize myself when I skip exercise because other priorities took precedence. We’re all doing the best we can. If we could do better, we would.
If I could give my old manager a hug, I would. Very few people are courageous enough to tell us what we need to hear but don’t want to know.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for being here and giving me this space to share with you. I’ll be back in your inbox next Wednesday.
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Keep letting go of expectations,
P.S. I’m offering free coaching for the month of June for the first two people who contact me. If you’re tired of self-shame and are ready for self-acceptance, reply to this email now.
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