Mental Health Moment: Expectations or Premeditated Resentments

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Expectations or Premeditated Resentments

by Nancy Bergeron, RPsych | [email protected]

Maybe you have heard the saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” Apparently, this statement originated in 12-step programs (possibly from the AA Big Book). This statement contains some sage and practical information for us about the power of our expectations.

We humans have a tendency to place our thoughts of happiness on the fulfillment of our expectations. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we have good reasons to believe that fulfilling an expectation will make us happy, and we take the necessary steps toward fulfilling those expectations. These reasons might include knowing from past experience that certain things make us happy. As an example, I know from experience that a warm beverage first thing in the morning will almost always give me a sense of happiness or contentment. Therefore, I expect this experience each morning after I finish walking my dog, to reliably give me that happiness.

The problem of expectation occurs when I expect something to happen without good reasons for that expectation. If I believe that my expectations alone will bring me what I want, I am using magical thinking, and possibly setting myself up for disappointment. This is really obvious when we are talking about my morning beverage. I can’t just think it into existence, I have to take the necessary steps to make it happen. I have to grind the beans, put the coffee and water in my coffee maker, and push the button. Or boil water in the kettle and put dry tea in my cup. Just expecting my beverage of choice to just appear is pretty crazy.

What is even less obvious, is when our expectations involve other human beings. Most of us are sane enough to realize that expecting a beverage to materialize from our thoughts is unrealistic. Yet many of us at some point, have mistakenly believed that expecting other people to behave the way we want, will actually make them behave that way. One member of a couple might expect the other to make the beverage. This is fine and good if the other person is happy to do so. But what happens if the other person has no interest in living up to that expectation? We feel hurt, possibly indignant, and certainly resentful. Expectations are premeditated resentments.

I’m sure you can think of many examples that apply to your own relationships with others. Here is one from Dawn Sinnot, “I’m sitting at the party. I planned it so perfectly. I would throw a surprise party for my best friend on my birthday. She’ll be so surprised! She walks in the door. She looks surprised. She greets everyone and thanks them for coming. She seems to be happy, yet … I know her better than anyone. I don’t feel that she’s as excited as I expected her to be. I don’t sense the appreciation that I had expected. I start to feel upset. I start to feel annoyed. What is this other feeling that’s gnawing at me? I start to feel resentment. All the planning, all the work, giving up my birthday celebration. I quietly acknowledge what I’m feeling and remind myself: Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

Expecting life to always turn out the way we want is guaranteed to lead to disappointment because life is messy. When those unfulfilled expectations involve the failure of other people to behave the way we expect them to, the disappointment also involves resentment.

Why is it that we don’t get upset when a beverage doesn’t make itself, but we get upset if someone else doesn’t make us that beverage? Where do we get the sense of entitlement to think that merely expecting others to behave the way we want them to, will make them behave that way? And what gives us license to get angry at other people when they fail to meet our expectations?

When we don’t verbalize expectations about the give and take in our relationships, we tend to construct stories in our minds about legitimate expectations of each other. In theory, in a relationship we have a “deal”, in which the specifics of the deal are never really talked about. It’s hard for someone to live up to our expectations when they don’t know what they are, but we still might see this failure as a violation of our social contract. A colleague shared an example about how she listened to a friend’s problems for years, even though it was very difficult, because she expected her friend to do the same for her when she wanted to talk about her problems. When this did not happen, the friendship ended.

Unspoken expectations are pretty much guaranteed to go unfulfilled. Talking openly about what we expect from other people could improve our chances of fulfillment. Dawn Sinnott again shared that, “By learning to not expect people to know what I want and need, I’ve learned to be much clearer in my communication. I don’t expect my husband to know why I’m pouting; I try to tell him why I’m upset.”

There is a caveat, that it is unrealistic to think that by merely communicating our expectations clearly, it is going to get people to behave the way we want them to. Once again, Dawn Sinnott shared that, “I don’t expect my children to know the house rules all the time. I am very clear when I remind them (even if it’s the 200th time).” Did we follow our parents’ expectations all the time? Has any child? Thinking that this will happen is unrealistic. The question is what to do when our children don’t follow the rules we have designed to help them keep safe, stay healthy, and grow into their potential. If we think that the answer is to get resentful and angry, and to yell and threaten, we might want to consider other alternatives.

Finally, there is a distinction between realistic and unrealistic expectations. That distinction is definitely important. According to Steve Lynch, believing that a non-verbalized expectation will bring you what you want is magical thinking and is unrealistic. Expecting that doing what in the past has reliably brought about a result you want is realistic. Expecting others to do what is in your interest, but not their interest, is unrealistic. Expecting others to do what is in both of your interests can be realistic. Hang in there and remember if you can be anything…be kind.

Here’s to a 2021, filled with hopes and wishes of good mental and physical health! Stay Safe.