Ah, expectations, the killers of happiness with others.
We are incredibly well trained to expect other people to behave themselves – the driver of the car behind us to follow at a reasonable distance; our neighbor to keep his dog from doing his duty in our yard; our sweetheart to, well, act sweet when we connect in the evening. Then, when our expectations are thwarted, we are surprised. We react with anger, hurt, and righteous indignation, contaminants of happiness one and all.
It is not surprising that we hold these expectations, because, for most of us, our entire socialization process trains us to expect the best and the brightest from both ourselves and others. At home, our parents insist we keep our room clean, eat our broccoli, do our chores. At school, we are taught to be on time and be prepared, pay attention in class, study hard and get good grades. At church, the good book insists we honor God by adhering to His commandments, do unto others as we would have them do unto us, forgo pleasures of one kind and another.
But what if we’ve got it backwards? What if we thought more realistic about the innate fallibility of our fellow humans, especially those closest to us? What would be the effect on our happiness quotient if we expected others to misbehave?
I remember one evening when my older son, Todd, was a teenager. I don't recall his exact misbehavior, but I do remember the impassioned lecture I delivered, my voice raised, my eyes intent, my finger wagging, a scene that repeated itself all too frequently for the happiness of each of us.
He stopped me dead in my tracks when he said, “Dad, sorry for interrupting, but you've got to get real. I'm a teenager. I'm never going to be perfect.”
That proved to be one of the seminal moments in my parenting life. Why? Because it illustrated in quite personal terms that I drove myself and him around the bend with unrealistic expectations. When I examined my self-talk, I found it to be littered with explications of “shoulds,” “musts,” and “ought-to’s,” as in: “He should know better.” “He must be motivated in school.” “He should follow the rules religiously.”
In my clinical psychology practice, I’ve heard from hundreds of my patients these same kind of unrealistic expectations for others, all resulting in the same happiness robbing results I got. I remember the husband, bitter and angry, because his wife was not the neatnik he expected her to be; the third grade teacher who carried resentment each day when at school because her principal did not deliver the warm fuzzies she expected; the 11th grader resentful for unrealistically expecting his alcoholic father to sober up.
Think about it. Each of these people spent an inordinate amount of time bargain-basement shopping. They took a difficult situation that burdened them, and then, with their expectation for infallible behavior, they created unhappiness for themselves to boot.
Let's Get Real
Like my son advised me, you’d better get real. After decades of helping people work through their unhappiness with others – decades of happiness-destroying anger, bitterness, and hurt – I‘ve learned to do my best to indoctrinate them in three Happiness With Others Principles.
• The people in your life — your colleagues, friends, neighbors, family members, lovers — not only will, but must (yes, must!) misbehave.
Why? Because they're human and fallible; they absolutely must on occasion act rude, stupid, insensitive, thoughtless, and all the rest. Get real – expect it.
• They will do so when they do, not at a time and in a manner that is convenient or likable to you. After all, you, yourself, are not special such that you can demand that people only misbehave when it suits you.
• When people do misbehave, never take it personal (see my blog, “Happiness With Others 2: Take Nothing Personal,” posted December 29, 2013) and do not ever damn them for their obnoxious behavior (see my blog, “Happiness With Others 1: Premeditated Acceptance And Forgiveness,” posted November 30, 2013). They do it because of their human fallibility.
To get the most possible happiness you can from your relationship life, you have to work at it. This not only includes treating people with respect and kindness, but getting your expectations in line with reality. To help you do so, consider the following five practices.
1. First thing every morning, take a few minutes to have a little chat with yourself. Remind yourself that the people with whom you will interact with that day are human – fallible – and they are likely to misbehave at some point during the day. Expect it. Chalk it up to their human nature and let it slide.
2. When you find yourself angry or hurt by someone's misbehavior, remember that it was your expectation – your “He/she shouldn't have misbehaved” – not their behavior that set you off. Correct your unrealistic expectations and let go of your hurt and anger.
3. Follow the advice of hypnotherapist Milton Erickson: find the positive characteristics the people in your life possess, particularly those most significant to you – their sparkling smile, their generosity, their sense of humor, their goodness of heart, their love of cats and dogs. Be sure to focus on these rather than their mistakes and faults. Do this for one month and I promise you more happiness in your relationship life.
4. Whenever you find yourself unhappy with another, instead of dwelling on his or her misbehavior, send out a mental bouquet of gratitude. When, for example, you find yourself about to say to your wife, “How could you forget to get that package to the post office!” instead focus on something about her for which you are grateful: “I sure wish she'd remembered, but she has such a loving heart.”
5. Expecting misbehavior doesn't mean that you accept everybody and anybody into your life. It only means that you don't block your happiness by carrying around hurt and anger. Without being interpersonally unhappy, you still would be wise to carefully choose who you hang out with. With realistic expectations about others, and without the contaminants of hurt and anger, use the Two Relationship Power Questions to make decisions about who to befriend: (1) Do I like, love or care about this person? (2) Is this person good for my happiness, well-being, and productivity? Only one “no” should give you pause.
Happiness with others is a big part of your overall happiness. But, like happiness in general, you'd be wise to work on it on purpose. This blog, I hope, helps you along that path.
I look forward to talking with you again next month. Till then, with healthy, happy, and with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose, and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.