inspiring joy filled living

Great Expectations

April 27, 2022

A while back, I read how there can be a canyon between our expectations and reality. A precarious balancing act.  A dance that sometimes feels more like a showdown.  An annoyance. A frustration.  Or even a soul-crushing letdown.  Our expectations are like balloons untethered.  They go as far and wide as our little hearts desire. Sometimes our expectations may not even be our own, rather they are fragments from our childhood we haven’t been able to shake.  We have adopted them without ever realizing they were never ours, to begin with.  Other times our expectations are grafted into us, maybe from a teacher, best friend, or a boss along the way.  And yet sometimes our expectations come from deep in our soul, a drive and desire to live a life we feel so certain is the one we are supposed to live.

So what happens when those expectations and our reality don’t see eye to eye? When our expectations outrun real life and feel more like impossible dreams? When the people in our lives can’t wrap their minds around why we would spend our precious time and energy on such endeavors?  When our feelings are hurt by the one person who we truly believed wasn’t capable of hurting us? When the world doesn’t make sense.

In my mind’s eyes, I see two mountains.  On one side of the mountain are all our expectations and on the other side is real life. The gap in between is where frustration, hurt, annoyance, comparison, anger, and disappointment grow.  It is in this canyon where we tend to nosedive.  It’s where blame and shame thrive.  Our tender underbelly is vulnerable and to shield ourselves from the hurt, we point our fingers so hard away from ourselves because the weight of knowing our personal responsibility can feel unbearable.  

In my experience, it seems there are two types of expectations that tend to play out: the expectations we have for others, usually these are the people we care about and love the most, and the expectations we have for ourselves. 

Like an annoying itch, some arise simply because we like our way best. Why in the world would you fold a towel that way?! And then they ramp up to include everything from how to handle conflict to raising kids.  A spectrum holding everything from family vacations and planning holidays to who should take out the trash.  

I remember as a kid having a conversation with my dad about how if we give something a name, then suddenly it exists.  Once we name it and give it air to breathe, then we can poke, prod, and examine it. By naming my expectations, suddenly I can take a step back and analyze them rather than unknowingly jumping on the reactionary-hamster-wheel I tend to default to.

That being said, the expectations I put on others almost always go unmet.  Why? Because they are my expectations, not theirs. Even if they wanted to check off my boxes, they don’t even know what is on my list. In my 39 years, I have yet to meet an actual mind reader. Here’s a typical newlywed example, maybe you can relate. Back in those early days of marriage, my sweet hubby and I had very different ideas of what our weekends should look like.  I wanted to get out of the house and go on adventures, and he saw those two precious days as a chance to hang out at home. We would do the dance of “what do you want to do?” a few times but never said what it was we actually wanted. We were trying to make the other person happy. Again, no mind readers here! Ultimately we just wanted to hang out together. Out of these very different expectations, a question was born. 

Now, almost 15 years later, we still ask…

“What are your expectations for….(the weekend, vacation, kids activities, work schedules, and just about everything else we can think of!)”

Asking that one question has saved us so much time and energy. We have been able to have more efficient and effective conversations that (usually!) lead to a compromise we are both happy with.  

Digging a little deeper, what happens when those expectations are not so easily negotiated? When the life we so desperately want hasn’t materialized? Sitting in the ravine between expectations and what life is presently like can be a lonely place.  The darkness has a tendency to play mind games.  The life that played in the movie of your heart hasn’t come to fruition.  The leading guy hasn’t entered from stage left and swept you off your feet.  The perfect job hasn’t materialized.  The dream career you poured blood, sweat, tears, and years into hasn’t taken off.  The relationship you desperately want to have with your parents is still strained.  The sister you want to connect with isn’t ready.  The ache for children is crushing.  Cancer has come back with a vengeance.  We expect one life, but instead, we are face down on the pavement of our reality.  Sometimes there’s something we can do about it and sometimes we can’t.  Sometimes there’s an immediate escape route and other times we are forced to sit in our canyon. 

At the age of 30, I had a clear vision of my life.  With two babies in tow, a cute hubby, and a house we had recently bought, I was excited to be out of the newborn stage and starting to get my bearings on life again. Little did I know within a few months, my hubs would get very sick from a ruptured appendix and almost have his life taken from him.  At nine years out, he is a walking miracle. But I remember the chasm.  I remember so clearly fumbling my way through the darkness and praying for the light to shine in.  I remember the very real moment when it became clear that I might walk out of that hospital alone. The feelings of helplessness, fear, and anger all took turns at the front of the line. This was not how our lives were supposed to play out.  All my expectations were shattered as I pleaded with God to just let me have our very normal life back.  Through His mercy, He healed my guy, but the journey ahead was nothing like what I had pictured.  

During that time, my expectations for myself and our family collided with daily life.  As one hurdle was crossed another one seemed to materialize.  I went from dreaming to surviving.  From seeing all the possibilities to treading water.  And even though I was so thankful for my hubby getting better, it took a long time for me to actually feel grateful in the everyday moments. It was a dramatic shift for a type-A personality like me. I wanted life to be on my terms and adhere to my timeline. The life I desperately thought I deserved was not the life God had planned for us.  I had done all the things I thought were “right,” and yet here I was wading through days that held more questions than answers.

Just like back then, I have to continue to trust that His plan is better than mine. I have to accept living on a need-to-know basis because I can’t see the big picture or know what the future is going to hold. Having walked through that chapter, I can see now how that time strengthened our marriage in an incredibly profound way. The outpouring of love from family and friends was immeasurable. The hot dinners that arrived at my door were made by the hands of real people who carried us through one of the hardest seasons of my life. My priorities shifted.

My bruised heart gave others permission to let their hurts out too and my kids ultimately got a better version of me that was forced to stop chasing a life I thought I wanted and live the one in front of me.

I had to be present even when I didn’t want to be. I had to show up, even when I desperately wanted to stay in bed because my people needed me. Even if it meant holding my kids and crying together, that time in my life showed me that strength isn’t defined by keeping it all together. It is falling apart but finding ways to get back up. It is breaking down and asking for help, even with the tiniest things. It is taking a time out, in my case that was usually a shower by myself, and letting go of these ideas of what a “good mom” would do. There were times when ordering takeout and letting the girls watch too much TV was the kindest thing I could do for myself.

That season also taught me how no act of love is too small. How one word (or text!) of kindness can be a liferaft to a drowning heart. How having a friend show up at my door meant the difference between putting on real clothes (yoga pants count!) and facing the day, or giving in to the pain that was simmering just below the surface. I know for certain that it was the love of our community that allowed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how hard, because I knew I wasn’t carrying the burden all by myself.

Any time in my life that I have seen that kind of clarity is in the midst of a chasm.  In the canyon is where my expectations have run so far ahead, even outstretched fingers can’t touch them.  Where my own strength, my own fight isn’t enough.  Where no amount of comparison can shame me into being a better version of myself.  Where the weight of helplessness feels crushing.  Where words cannot begin to explain the grief.  That is where I am finally willing to surrender and then I can actually take a breath.  To let the weight of where I am, not define who I am. Or the rest of my life.  To see that life is hard and that some seasons require more of us than we thought we could give.   

But what if this has to be part of our story? What if the next chapter can’t be written until we walk through this one? What if the unmet expectations of today will ultimately be the invitations for tomorrow?  What if having a conversation with our kids, our spouse, or our friends about our expectations dramatically transforms the relationship for the better because everyone has a chance to feel heard? Or by adjusting what we expect from our loved ones, we give them the grace to make their own set of standards?  What if we did that for ourselves and gave ourselves permission to explore without judgment? Or simply rest without the fear of failing?

Now I’m not saying, don’t have dreams.  Or stop growing.  I’m not saying to give up or give in.  I’m merely suggesting a shift in perspective. To be brave enough to ask questions.  Most of the time, we already know the answers.  Are these expectations from me? Or is someone else’s voice in my head? Do these expectations fill me with inspiration and joy, or guilt and shame?  Am I letting comparison color my lenses? Do I want this simply because someone else has done it? Is this the right season to take on another project? What is the end result I’m after? Do I need to let something go in order to say yes? How will this choice impact my family? What do I really want?

Life keeps teaching me over and over that asking good questions ultimately leads to asking better questions, which brings clarity to the path ahead.  Instead of living in a world of assumptions, knowledge leads to thoughtful choices. I’m more strategic and ninja-like when it comes to adjusting along the way because I’ve already acknowledged the path to be filled with unexpected landmines.  Knowing the distractions of life (a sick kid, the water heater breaks, car won’t start, fill-in-the-blank) are coming, pushes me to give myself grace.  This doesn’t come easily for me.  My default is to run full speed ahead, never mind it may be through a brick wall and only see the end result.  To be so focused on the prize that I’m willing to leave debris and chaos in my wake and the worst part is my justification for the process.  In that scenario, I tend to arrive bloody and a little broken.  There’s no joy.  Just check the box, check the box, check the box.  And yet almost as quickly as a milestone is reached, a further marker immediately appears.  

Maybe you can relate?  Maybe you have a bit of type A in you too? So, then I have to ask the question, why do we do this to ourselves?  I have a theory.  I think sometimes expectations can be a sort of armor.  A shield of protection.  A golden ticket rooted in a false sense of cause and effect.  When I reach these expectations, then I will feel satisfied.  On the other side of this expectation, there will be joy, success, rainbows, unicorns, and all the good things.  If I can just reach this expectation, then my life will be better.  And no doubt, there are milestones and achievements where we should absolutely roll out the red carpet, light fireworks, and party like it’s 1999. Working hard and crossing a finish line is a beautiful thing. 

I think the problem lies when the marker keeps moving.  When we cross this finish line, only to immediately focus on the next without even taking a moment to relish in the accomplishment.  To recognize a job well done. To celebrate. To pause and reflect. To let our people into our journey. To break out the bubbly and cheers to our family for their amazing support. The problem is when we don’t. When instead we do the opposite. When our self-worth is tied up in those milestones and even if we reach the milestone we think of a thousand ways we could have done it better. Or we are immediately terrified of how we are going to accomplish even more because this took almost everything we had. We steal our own joy and bring down those around us. This mentality does not allow any room to acknowledge the talents and beauty within us, just by being human. It doesn’t give credit for any positives, it only highlights our flaws and points us towards another harder-to-reach expectation. And it keeps our people at a distance, instead of letting them into our arms, hearts, and successes.

Goodness, I’m talking to myself right here.

I’ve been so guilty of allowing this mindset to steer my thinking and therefore my actions. Over the years, I have robbed myself of experiencing that kind of joy for a job well done and I can tell you now, the result didn’t make me better. It didn’t push me farther or make me stronger or motivate me more, it just brought me down. On the contrary, when I have allowed the celebration to take place, everyone is lifted. That saying flipped on its head, “when mama is happy, everyone is happy” could not be truer. When I celebrate my wins, I am then an example to my kids to celebrate theirs (even the small, I-put-my-own-laundry-away, wins!) When they see me work hard and then rest, it gives them permission to do the same, and hopefully, when my tiny people aren’t so tiny, they will carry some of these lessons with them into their own adult lives. That might be my biggest win of all.

I do not believe life is meant to be one long agonizing race or a bunch of boxes to be checked.  God’s plan for us was not a task mission.  I think it was quite the opposite.  Jesus was all about relationships.  He poured time and energy into people and He loved them right where they were at.  He didn’t need to carry around his to-do list, because He knew His purpose and as an example to us, He simply lived it out.

I find that when I focus my eyes outward, then I better see the people in front of me. To not be so task-focused that I miss caring about the things that matter most.  To see the gap between my reality and expectations as an invitation to ask questions for the purpose of creating a more beautiful, fulfilled life.  To let the hurts of unmet expectations allow my vulnerability to come to the surface.  The closest relationships in my life have been born out of letting others see the parts of me that aren’t shiny and polished.  When I let others into my mess, it allows everyone’s shoulders to relax and real relationships to begin. In those moments is where we see the beautiful gift of connection.

When we haven’t reached our expectations, it is too easy for fear and shame to swallow up our ambitions.  It can cause us to question who we are and silence us into abandoning the desires of our hearts.  But if we are brave enough, the bottom of our canyon can also be where we are forced to get quiet.  With great courage, we can ask difficult questions and with even more courage accept the answers.  To regroup and keep going or light a match, burn it down, and try something else. Or to wait. Pause and be still. To tweak and then run. Or the ultimate brand of bravery is to stop going down the wrong road simply because we started.

Instead let’s invite our expectations along in the passenger seat, while always keeping a close eye to make sure they don’t make a grab for the steering wheel. Sometimes this looks like listening for suggestions and filtering for clarity. And sometimes it is dropping to our knees because we have reached the end of ourselves. My love letter to you is that your great expecations may lead you to the beginning of your own beautifully unwritten (yet!) next chapter.