To Build Self Esteem: Live Up To *Your* Expectations – Not Their’s



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This article was originally published last December, my first post as a guest contributor on PsychCentral. It has continued relevance for any of us who are working hard to build a strong self-esteem by turning up the volume on our authentic inner voice. 

“We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal [to be] that which others have made of us.” ~Jean-Paul Sartre

While I’m happy that the election turned out the way it did, I worry

about all that’s expected of our new president. Headlines report

Obama is expected to solve the health care debacle, save the American car industry, right the mortgage problem, make science and education a priority again, keep the globe from warming, cure race relations…

There’s more but you get my point.

A lot of these expectations Obama set upon himself. He won by being the adult in the room, the go-to guy; he wanted the job and we expect he can handle it.

But it got me thinking about the rest of us. When is the pressure of expectations a good thing? When is it bad? How do you tell the difference? And what do you do about it if it’s bad?

My parents expected my siblings and I to be happy (sounds good) and to be physicians (not so good). My father, a medical doctor for whom medicine was a calling, just didn’t get that we might not share his passion. We got these mixed messages throughout our childhood: “You can be anything you want as long as you study hard and become a Doctor.”

I’m getting a headache just remembering.

Now I’m not about blaming the parents. We have to take responsibility for ourselves at some point. But a boatload of depression and anxiety can result while we figure it out.

After trying and hating pre-med in college I floated. I didn’t even realize I was depressed until my dad suggested I go into therapy. With the help of a terrific psychologist I realized I was trying so hard to please my parents I had lost myself. Happy ending, yes? Uh, no.

The trouble with parental expectations is that they begin so early in our development they become hard-wired into the brain. Those voices we have in our head? Usually it’s a mix of our voice and a crowd of well-intentioned relatives shouting,

“Eat more, children are starving in India!”

“You are such an idiot! Can’t you do anything right?”

“Don’t take any risks. It’s a dangerous world out there!”

We carry these voices around with us even after the original source is long dead. So as much as I had insight into my ‘parent pleasing’ ways, finding and using my true voice was another matter.

My particular ghost told me that to be a professional meant being super conservative in manner. That was great for the mid-twentieth century when psychoanalysis, my Dad’s chosen specialty, was in its heyday. It won’t do for my 21st century psychotherapy practice or for me.

How do you tell if parental expectations are good or bad?

Write down the expectation. Look at it and ask yourself, “Does that sound like me or someone else? If it is someone else, is it a kind, encouraging voice or is it harsh?” Encouraging for me was to hear my parents say, ‘we expect you to achieve.’ I could embrace that voice. But look out, because even kind voices can tie us up tighter than a straitjacket. Many parents, me included, tell their kids to ‘be careful’ when what they need to hear is ‘believe in yourself enough to take a chance.’

What do you do about it once you’ve identified a toxic expectation?

Talk back. Don’t just let it go unchallenged, argue with it. I use a dialog box a variation on the old pros and cons list. Just a piece of paper divided into two columns, on the left I start with the harsh/negative voice and then on the right I respond with something closer to My voice. This goes back and forth, because of course it isn’t as easy as “You suck” on one side and “Shut up” on the other, although that’s not an entirely bad idea. Usually I have to write the argument down until I’ve exhausted the negativity. Eventually the dialogues get shorter. This takes practice. I’m still practicing, as you can see.

Let go of the need to be mini versions of them. This is probably the hardest for me. I admire my dad too much. I tend to see him as the ultimate professional. My therapist helped me accept that my dad was probably more like me (doing my best, imperfectly) that I needed to be like my distorted idea of who he was. It’s an ongoing struggle for me to accept that my dad’s way is not my way and, most importantly, that that’s actually a good thing.

Visualize declaring independence from that person’s expectations and having it be OK. I imagine my dad in heaven having a fit over my indiscreet exposure of my life on a global public network. I have to be OK with that, give him back the responsibility to handle it and have faith that his love for me will win out.

This is a lot harder when the person involved is alive and kicking and in your face but the principle is the same. If another person’s expectations are really tying you down you may need to detach yourself from them temporarily while you get used to considering your own expectations first. If that means not calling your mom every day or skipping a Sunday dinner at the old homestead so be it. Yeah, I know, easier said than done. Just keep in mind some limit setting may be necessary to reset your expectation button.

Don’t think you have to tell them what you’re doing. Confronting parents for their past foibles, I don’t see the point of it in all cases. They are unlikely to understand and only feel hurt. Instead just do what you need to do to own your expectations and let go of theirs if they are getting in your way. In my experience when adult children of overbearing parents begin to dare to live their own lives the reaction isn’t nearly as explosive as they expect it to be.

I’ve made the decision to jettison others’ expectations about as many times as I’ve started diets. No matter how hard I try to avoid it that evil little voice pops up to say, “Ooooo, don’t shine too brightly. You might offend someone.” There’s no totally killing it but at least we can turn down the volume way down.

So let’s take a page from our President Obama. Despite being the focus of the expectations of the world I don’t see him acting in a way to suggest this paralyzes him. It’s the least I can do to be clear about my own expectations which I’ve boiled to this: I expect to do give life my best shot and to make mistakes along the way. Because whether we’re President, or simply a hopeful citizen, we can all expect to be human.

Photo courtesy Sock Monkey via Flickr

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