The Heavy Crown of Great Expectations

The great weight of expectations can apply to any person.

Posted Feb 12, 2020

The recent news coverage of the pressure bore to bear on Prince Harry to decide whether to fulfill the responsibilities of his royal birthright or abandon that role to live a non-royal life with his wife, Meghan Markle, was the stuff of high drama for Royal watchers and gossip columnists. It also illustrated how the pressure of great expectations placed upon individuals, whether it be from within themselves or outside forces, can sometimes put too great a strain on one’s mental health and well-being.

Shakespeare wrote: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” And while it’s hardly a stretch to apply those words to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the truth is you don’t have to be a Royal to have the heavy weight of responsibility become all too much to handle. We, commoners, have it too. In fact, it is far more common than we might think.

The great weight of expectations can apply to any person who has significant responsibilities placed upon them. It can be a CEO, a physician, a teacher, or a single parent. The list is long. The responsibilities vary. The key to how it impacts an individual’s mental health and well-being depends largely on the individual’s perception of the expectations placed upon them and whether or not there exists enough flexibility and freedom within a given role to release the pressure valve. 

Most of us have protocols we follow. The difference is, unlike the Royals, we get to go home, escape for a while. Even those who follow an after-business hours ‘on-call’ schedule (doctors and nurses come to mind) can find respite away from the fray. The Royals, however, do not get to ‘go home.’ They are always on.  

Depending on the nature of the person, that is not always a bad thing. Often, we hear the necessity for work-life balance to prevent people from experiencing “burnout,” which can be a euphemism for physical or mental exhaustion, depression, anxiety or stress. The thing is that while pressure and stress can oftentimes manifest in a negative cause and effect scenario, it is by no means a universal experience. Some people are just wired or brought up in an environment where that is the life they love. They are social creatures, thrive on the interaction and stress of a situation and are not in emotional distress at all. They would find not having an audience or a spotlight shined upon them to be more stressful.

Robyn Charnley Shutterstock
Source: Robyn Charnley Shutterstock

For others, you can see physical signs of discomfort when they are thrust into those types of roles. Many express the idea that they are “feeling like an imposter.” This seems to be the case with Harry and Meghan.  Shakespeare may have implied that heavy was the head that wore the crown, but he also said that “above all else: to thine own self be true.” It’s the space in between those statements where the internal conflict resides. If you’re carrying the heavy weight of a crown and not being true to yourself then you are in conflict. And it’s important to remember, it’s an internal conflict first and foremost and it can become exhausting and debilitating.

In some roles, the person can go home and switch off the pressures of the day but if their internal role never changes and the world or the expectations remain regimented, what course can they reasonably pursue to protect their mental well-being? The path forward isn’t always clear. I would suspect that for a Royal, with the stereotype of keeping a “stiff upper lip” and carrying on no matter the circumstance, it is quite a heavy burden to carry. Some would scoff at that. Pressure? You live in a palace, have butlers and all of these fairytale trappings. That’s true and it’s great if it’s what you want but what if it’s not? You can never relax or find peace.

I’ve never spoken with Prince Harry, but there are many things we can glean from his public comments. He was traumatized by the death of his mother. He has publically verbalized that he did not want what happened to his mother to happen again. He was concerned about his mental health and the health of his wife. Like his mother, his wife was not a Royal and rebelled against the Royal family constraints. When people are pigeon-holed and feel trapped they may try to go along or respond to the intense pressure and say, “I am not doing this.” 

Again, much of this goes back to how we view the roles we are in. Much of our response comes from our subjective interpretation of the pressures or stressors and the ‘rewards we receive as a result.  It is often said that “perception is reality.” When it comes to our mental health, there is much truth in that statement.

For those who find their situation chronically stressful, they may adapt to the stress because they cannot escape or get a much-needed sense of relief. They may become compliant, rebellious, depressed, or even depressed to the point that they want to hurt themselves because they can’t get away. Sometimes getting away from that metaphorical prison you are locked in, may not be a physical one. It may be one that you have established in your head. When it comes to overwhelming stress and feeling trapped, we commoners can use a strategy available to royalty and commoner alike, get distance from it.

A photo was widely circulated of Prince Harry departing his plane in Canada, grinning from ear-to-ear. He was leaving his pre-ordained life of a Royal behind. And while you can’t be certain of what a person is feeling without knowing and talking to them (and pictures may certainly deceive), the smile seemed genuine. There appeared to be a sense of relief.  He looked like a man whose heavy crown had been lifted and was now able to be true to himself.