When are expectations justifiable?

Having expectations is justifiable only when an agreement was previously made! During all the years I’ve been teaching, I never found a more significant source of emotions and stress than the situations that were generated by expectations.

What’s an agreement? It’s the conscious result of a discussion between two or more persons concerning a certain subject, topic or situation. An agreement is not necessarily a commitment; you may have an agreement without any commitment. For example, a couple may agree to visit Italy during their next vacation. But neither of them has committed to take care of travel arrangements or pay for the trip! In general, a commitment comes after the agreement. We can commit to ourselves, but to have an agreement we have to be involved with another person or persons. I can promise myself that starting tomorrow, I will take at least a one hour walk or do some exercise every second day. That is a promise or commitment, but not an agreement.

An agreement is not an order. How many times have we heard or seen someone get angry, saying: "I told you yesterday that you had to do this today, and you never said you wouldn’t!” In these situations, there was no agreement between the two persons.  People generally assume that they’re entitled to have expectations when they ask something of someone and the other just stays silent; but what if the other person didn’t hear the request? That’s why there are so many emotions (anger, frustration, disappointment, aggression, impatience) caused by expectations.

Let’s say a woman’s leaving to go shopping and her husband says to her at the last minute: "Remember, dear, bring me the newspaper." She comes back without the paper and he gets angry. He’s even ready to swear that she agreed to do it, when in reality she was still preoccupied by the phone call she received before she left so she wasn’t really listening to him. So, in order to have a real agreement in such a situation, the husband should have asked her if she would buy him a newspaper and waited for her answer.

We expect our children to act respectfully and gratefully. We expect our spouse to remember our anniversary. In a couple, whoever doesn’t do the cooking expects that the other will have a meal on the table at supper time. The woman expects the man to put down the toilet seat. Were there clear agreements in these different situations? In general, no.

In some situations it’s normal to have expectations; for example, when you travel and you’re told that the train or plane is leaving at a certain time, your impatience is justified when the schedule isn’t respected.

Unfortunately, we carry around a lot of expectations where there hasn’t been any previous agreement. For example, when you’re waiting in line at the store or at the bank. You expect to be served immediately, but these establishments never agreed to serve you as soon as you entered the door.

Once you realize that you’re angry about something or other you expected to happen, ask yourself if there had been a real agreement. If the answer’s no, take a deep breath and be aware that it’s the price you pay for having unrealistic expectations, and for not having made good arrangements in the first place. Remember that, fortunately, this will get easier with practice.

If the answer’s yes, that in your opinion there was a clear agreement, I suggest you check with the other person to see if the agreement was as clear to him or her as it was for you. When you often have this kind of experience with a person who easily forgets his or her agreements and commitments, it’s recommended you have an additional agreement on consequences (the price to pay when one does not fulfill the agreement). The best way I found to help me with those who make agreements and commitments without holding to them, is to use a technique that’s called the mirror. This technique is part of the Be in Harmony workshop.

With love,

Lise Bourbeau

Learn to be happy

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