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Where Do Your Expectations of Yourself Come From?

What you expect from yourself is shaped by your temperament and your parents.

Key points

  • Children have been shaped by natural selection to absorb their parents' rules, transforming them into into self-expectations.
  • Differences in parental caretaking behavior and child temperament affect how strongly children internalize their parents' rules.
  • A child's accommodation to peer expectations can temper or compensate for his or her inner expectations.

The Theory of Inner and Outer Expectations

In a previous PT blog post, I introduced Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies theory. This theory suggests that differences in achieving happiness can be explained by the importance people place on fulfilling inner expectations and outer expectations. Inner expectations are our own personal standards and values; outer expectations are what other people expect of us.

The present post focuses on the nature and origin of inner expectations. Where do our inner expectations come from? Why is it that some people have strong, clear inner expectations that they strive to live up to while others lack a clear-cut inner compass? This post describes what personality science has discovered about inner expectations, while a future post will focus on what we know about outer expectations.

The Origin of Inner Expectations

Where do the expectations that you hold for yourself come from in the first place? In a word, parents. Parents expect their children to behave in certain ways. Parents have rules they want their children to follow. Parents have moral values and standards that they want their children to live by. Parents teach children these rules and values both by explicit instruction and by setting examples with their own behavior.

Instructing children about rules is a one-way street, not a two-way negotiation. For example, when children learn their parents' language, there is no discussion about which word we should use to refer to something or the grammatical rules that determine the meaning of sentences. Children must simply accept the rules of language if they are to develop the vitally important ability to communicate.

Children must also comply with rules that protect the child's health and safety, for example, what they can or cannot eat and where they are allowed or not allowed to be. The ability to absorb and obediently follow these kinds of rules can literally determine life or death.

According to evolutionary psychology, the disposition to take rules seriously and follow them dogmatically probably kept our ancestors alive during childhood. Children who were able to follow rules effortlessly and unquestioningly were the children who did not eat poisonous plants or wander where predators roamed. The children who had trouble following rules were victims of natural selection. As descendants of the children who were natural rule-followers, most children today are pre-equipped to learn rules quickly and internalize them. When parents' rules are internalized, your parents' expectations for you become your own expectations of yourself.

Differences in the Internalization of Rules

Although the tendency to internalize rules quickly may have evolved as a natural tendency, both child temperament and parenting style determine the strength of internalized, inner expectations. Even Pavlov's dogs, famous for demonstrating how the environment shapes behavior, showed differences in temperament that affected their ability to be conditioned. The same is true for children. Some children possess what psychologists call temperamental resistance to control (Bates, Pettit, Dodge, and Ridge, 1998) that interferes with their ability to internalize rules. In extreme form, this tendency can manifest as oppositional defiant disorder (Kim, Cho, Kim, Kim, Shin, and Yeo, 2010). In contrast, children who show temperamental regularity, persistence, and a positive mood are more likely to internalize rules.

Parental behavior also affects how strongly children internalize rules. Permissive or neglectful parenting does not give children clear rules to internalize. Parents who are strict but cold and harsh—this is called authoritarian parenting—tend to have children who are outwardly compliant with rules but who feel resentful and may not fully internalize these rules. Parents who present their children with clear, consistent rules in a kind and loving manner—this is called authoritative parenting—are more likely to have children who internalize rules.

Factors That Can Temper Inner Expectations or Compensate for Lack of Inner Expectations

Young children who internalize their parents' expectations into strong inner expectations can be quite dogmatic about right and wrong. For them, there is no difference between the truth of a moral rule and the truth of a natural law. For them, certain things are always right or wrong for all people under all circumstances, just like the law of gravity is the same for everyone (Johnson, 2007).

Jean Piaget (1932/1997) described this confusion between subjective human feelings about right and wrong and objective facts about the natural world moral realism. As moral realists, very young children show a stubborn certainty about their family's rules as correct. Rigid obedience is always good and disobedience, always bad. Even the rules of games are absolute and inviolable for children between the ages of 2 and 5—there is only one right way to play games and the rules cannot be changed.

Normally, this inflexibility of inner expectations is tempered by experiences with other children during the school years. Children who have sufficient empathy learn to see the world from the perspective of other children who come from different backgrounds and who have different expectations. We normally become responsive to others' expectations, learning to compromise and develop new agreements about rules. Eventually, through self-examination, we may realize that not every idea we inherited from our parents is true.

But as we will see in the next blog post, some of us who have strong inner expectations never do become responsive to others' expectations. We become what Rubin calls a Questioner—someone who is skeptical about all ideas that do not match their own inner expectations. And some of us who did not develop strong inner expectations compensate by paying attention to what others expect from us. We become what Rubin calls an Obliger.

The next post will also describe the consequences of becoming responsive to both inner and outer expectations or failing to develop responsiveness to either inner or outer expectations.

Finally, a future post will explore what personality science knows about autonomy, which is moving beyond both our parents' and friends' expectations.


Bates, J. E., Pettit, G. S., Dodge, K. A., & Ridge, B. (1998). Interaction of temperamental resistance to control and restrictive parenting in the development of externalizing behavior. Developmental Psychology, 34, 982–995.

Johnson, J. A. (2007, June). The evolution of moral rules from natural laws. Poster presented at the 19th annual meeting of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, Williamsburg, VA.

im, H. -W., Cho, S. -C., Kim, B. -N., Kim, J. -W., Shin, M. -S., & Yeoc, J. -Y. (2010). Does oppositional defiant disorder have temperament and psychopathological profiles independent of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder? Comprehensive Psychiatry, 51, 412-418.

Piaget, J. (1997). The moral judgment of the child. (M. Gabain, Trans.). New York: Free Press Paperbacks (Original work published 1932 by Routledge, Trench, Trubner & Co.).

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