All too often I work with clients whose anger with themselves and others is based on maintaining unrealistic expectations–of themselves and others. I believe that one expectation in particular is especially powerful for the generation of frustration, inadequacy and even shame that can fuel such anger. Jerry, a young adult whom I worked with several years ago, shared an anecdote that offers some insight into the roots of this expectation.
Jerry described an experience he had when he was five-years-old. He recalled standing with his father in the shallow end of a swimming pool. He had been there previously and enjoyed being in the water with his father–as long as they didn’t go into the deeper end. On this particular day his father bent down, looked into his eyes and told Jerry he was going to teach him to swim. Without much warning, his father stood a little behind him and then abruptly lifted and heaved Jerry forward into the deeper water. Jerry described being overcome by panic. He swallowed a lot of water and thrashed about until his father helped him return to the shallow water.
This was an intensely frightening experience. And yet, what Jerry most recalled was feeling embarrassed and even shameful. “I believed my father did that because he assumed I should be able to swim. And, at the time, I believed he was right and that he would not do anything to hurt me.
I suggested that he learned a lesson, but that it was not related to swimming. Unfortunately, it was an experience that I have heard numerous times. He internalized a belief that became a part of his internal compass throughout his life. I suggested that he learned to embrace the unrealistic expectation that “I should know what I do not know.”
Sadly, this is an expectation that many of us learned in our early years. And, as is usual for the development of many of our expectations, it is one that usually depends on numerous and comparable experiences to become rooted in our psyche.
I have seen the damaging impact that this expectation can last throughout one’s life. It ignores the reality that a solid sense of competency requires knowledge and skills. Upholding this expectation can create suffering in a variety of ways.
It contributes to unhealthy perfectionism and to dropping out of healthy competition. It can undermine our commitment to seek new challenges, from engaging in a hobby to following a particular course of study or even the pursuit of a career. Further, this same expectation can contribute to the anxiety that we will be discovered as being an imposter. And, most poignantly, in my practice, I have seen how this expectation leads to daily anger for individuals in their personal relationships as well a in the workplace.
For example, I have counseled many parents who reported feeling frustrated and angry with their child and with themselves. I begin by helping them to identify unrealistic expectations they may have regarding their child. Additionally, I share practices in relaxation, mindfulness and compassion-focused strategies, to sit with both anger and the inner pain behind it. And, yes, I help them explore how past experiences contributed to heighten their vulnerability for anger arousal. This may include addressing past hurts that can make them overly sensitive to feel threatened.
As part of this process, however, I also inquire about how they learned to be a parent. They pause to reflect and most report that their parenting techniques are based on observations of their parents and, in some cases, neighbors or extended family. Some of their strategies mimic those of their models. Other practices reflect an avoidance of behaviors they observed.
And I then ask if they have read any books or taken classes in parenting. Rarely do they report such engagement. This highlights how, with or without awareness, each parent is behaving from the unrealistic assumption that “I should just know how to be a good parent.” This is just another form of expecting to know what one doesn’t know.
Similarly, I have seen how individuals in the workplace who are vulnerable to stress and anger when they also believe “I should know what I don’t know”. Some are fearful of asking questions and then angered with themselves when they make mistakes or with others for not giving them helpful guidance.
More specifically, I have also worked with individuals who have been promoted to a managerial role. Many report frustration and anger with those they supervise and only through discussion do they recognize how their expectations contribute to their anger. It’s easier to be angry with supervisees than to admit to and recognize some shortcomings with oneself as a manager. I then ask them what books they’ve read or classes they attended having to do with management skills. Few report having an MBA. Most indicate not seeing any additional resource.
When I suggest learning new skills to support oneself, either as a parent or in the workplace, most clients think it is a good idea. However, the expectation that “I should know what I don’t know” is powerfully rooted in the emotional mind. Countering or moving past this belief involves acts of courage.
Like so many unrealistic expectations, letting go of them involves acknowledging, grieving and mourning them. It requires admitting that we may lack knowledge, make mistakes and/or be deficient in certain skills. It calls for recognizing and being comfortable with our lack of perfection. Overall, it calls for self-compassion in order to become less critical with ourselves and with others.
Learning specific skills helps us to be knowledgeable and to feel empowered and competent. It does call for cultivating openness, flexibility of thinking and curiosity. However, learning new skills is a powerful approach for diminishing the unrealistic expectation that “I should know what I don’t know.” And, it is a potent strategy for reducing vulnerability to destructive anger–with ourselves or with others.