The Tyranny of Expectations: Depression's Foe

There is no doubt: expectations can impact our experiences. This is especially true during the holidays.

A major contributor to blues around the holidays are unfulfilled expectations. They are too plentiful to count: our expectations of others, others’ expectations of us, our expectations of God, and even our expectations of ourselves. Most expectations are unspoken, which is akin to playing a game but no-one knowing the rules.

A short time ago, my son came home from school and wanted the family to play a game together. But there was a catch: part of the game was that the players had to figure out the rules without being explicitly told. The only rule we were given at the outset was that we were not allowed to be explicitly told the rules but rather, we had to figure them out as we played. He knew the rules because he had previously played the game with friends. We, on the other hand, had to figure out the rules through trial and error as we played.

Our reactions to this experience were mixed: some of us found the comedy of our errors to be rather humorous, some enjoyed the challenge of using feedback as our clues to determine the unspoken rules, and some found the lack of structure frustrating at best. The same could be said about unspoken expectations.

Think about it: at a holiday meal, you may consciously or unconsciously hope that your mother-in-law will compliment your table setting, while she may expect that you will gush about her bringing her “famous” fruit cake (as usual).

You may hold yourself to a high expectation that all the food will come out of the oven at exactly the same time and be picture-perfect suitable for the cover of Food & Wine magazine.

And what about the expectations you have of God? Perhaps that He would bring home your estranged sister, or perhaps stretch your budget to meet the increased holiday expenses, or maybe that He would let you attend the holiday festivities with a significant other on your arm (or even that your current significant other would be sober, clean-shaven and not embarrass you in front of your family)?

Creating and trying to live up to these expectations is exhausting.

Expectations are a subtle form of control. In creating expectations for others, God, and ourselves, we are unconsciously setting the standard that we will only be happy, satisfied, or content if or when such expectations are met. What’s even worse is when our expectations remain unspoken. That’s like asking someone what they want to eat for dinner and hoping you guess right out of the billion possibilities that exist!

We really have two feasible options: to share our unspoken expectations with others so they are known (although this still doesn’t guarantee that our expectations will be met by others) or to forego our desire to control, and release others, God, and ourselves from the tyranny of our expectations.

By not recognizing and acknowledging our expectations, we set ourselves up for disappointment, frustration, and at times even despair. By becoming aware of our stated or unstated expectations, we can then make a conscious decision regarding what is first reasonable and second necessary in our minds.

In years past, I found that not recognizing the unspoken expectations I had of others, God, and myself, set me up to feel regretful and forlorn at the end of the holiday season, but not knowing why. I would rationalize to myself that “It was a nice holiday season,” “I enjoyed seeing so-and-so,” and that “I managed to complete everything on my holiday preparation to-do list,” then wonder why I felt disappointed or sad.

Once I realized I was making expectations of others and myself, and that others could not live up to my spoken expectations of them, then I could make the conscious decision to let go and surrender to what would be.

By surrendering, I gave myself and others the freedom to enjoy whatever came our way.

I was more focused on the moment instead of pre-planning the future. By letting others off the hook from my unspoken expectations, I was much more able to give myself grace as well. And with that grace, came peace and contentment.

What expectations have you made for yourself this holiday season? For others? For God? Which of those are you willing to surrender in exchange for His peace?

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