I believe expectations are good to have. They help us structure our lives, find purpose and direction, and can give us something to strive for. What many of my clients and even I have struggled with from time to time is learning what expectations and goals are heathy to have at any given time. Should all expectations be the same, regardless of how we feel emotionally? No. As human beings we struggle at times, we have good days where we feel motivated and excited about life and not so good days where we feel stress, depression, burnout, overwhelm and anxiety. Not just those who struggle with their mental health, but everyone. It’s part of being human.
These expectations however can be used in a damaging way to ourselves and those around us. As a therapist for 10 years, if I had a penny for every time I heard “I should be able to (fill in the blank) and I’m less than because I can’t”, I’d be rich. There is a term for this, it’s called “Shoulding all over yourself”, and like the similar profane word, it’s not good.
The idea, and the expectation that we maintain the highest level of functioning every day is ridiculous and frankly bullshit. Life is constantly in flux and our expectations of ourselves should be as well. There are many ways to illustrate this point, the best way I’ve found is to describe what happens when a person is hypothermic. The body begins shutting down, circulation decreases and slows to your extremities, focusing mostly on the core and your internal organs, basically, what is most important. When treated effectively, the body stabilizes and gradually warms, circulation begins to return to the extremities, and a person will eventually reach homeostasis and start to feel more like themselves instead of a human popsicle.
When people are struggling, taking a good look at expectations is necessary and essential. Expectations that make us believe we need to be everything to everyone including ourselves all the time, can prolong the negative feelings. I’ve had so many my clients heartbreakingly say they feel like they’re letting everyone down, they’re letting themselves down when they’re having a hard time maintaining the same expectations of themselves on not so good days Like that hypothermic body, when less attention is paid to what is on the periphery, but instead, is focused more on what is absolutely necessary, we can begin to regain our footing. We gradually begin to stabilize, and once there’s a solid foundation by focusing on the basics, then we can begin to adjust expectations once again to bigger things.
A good day To Do list may look like this:
2. Buy groceries
3. Clean the house
4. Run errands,
5. Return phone calls
6. Mow the lawn
A not so good day To Do list may look like this:
1. Eat something,
2. Drink water,
3. Email therapist or call friend,
4. Take shower,
5. Be compassionate with myself.
Neither list is better than the other, and it takes a great deal of strength to accept where you are and approach yourself with grace. So, the next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, depressed or anxious, please take a good look at your expectations, ask what is absolutely necessary and what can wait, you’ll thank yourself later.
Written by Pamela Chapman, LCSW
Pamela (Pam) Chapman, LCSW is a Denver based psychotherapist with a private practice named Embrace the Suck Therapy, LLC. Pam specializes in helping adults who struggle with depression and anxiety, with a particular focus on trauma and PTSD. Pam's favorite clients are those who consider “feelings” the other F word, and who would rather have a root canal than open up about what’s bothering them but know they need to do it anyway. She believes in being uncomfortable by choice and making the decision to face what's happening head on. She uses an eclectic therapeutic style with a lot of humor and a pragmatic reality-based approach to help people dispel the myths about seeking mental health services and begin to feel better.