Much of the abuse I grew up with was not physical. It was emotional. And emotional abuse is often much harder to put a finger on.
Sure, if someone calls you a loser or some other kind of slur, that’s easy to recognize.
But so often, emotional abuse comes in all the subtle ways someone tells you you’re not good enough, smart enough, or worthy.
The back-handed compliment. The lack of enthusiasm behind a ‘Congratulations.’ Dreams that are nitpicked under the guise of ‘not wanting you to get hurt’ or ‘just wanting you to be realistic.’ Not just one dream – all of them. The ‘why can’t you be more like…?’ Diminishing the significance of your accomplishments or exaggerating the significance of your mistakes. Bragging about another family member when your own accomplishments go unrecognized, leading you to believe you don’t measure up or you’ll never right for reasons you will never be able to understand. Leaving you out of the loop when it comes to important information. I go go on and on… (In fact, if we crowd-sourced this, we could come up with quite a long list!)
These are things that, in and of themselves, don’t seem like such a big deal (don’t be so sensitive – you’re being ridiculous!) But these things taken in their entirety can amount to a staggering level of cruelty.
If you grew up with enough of this, you quite likely internalized a fair bit if it, and now you’re doing it to yourself.
I’ve recently come to realize that unrealistic expectations are another form of emotional abuse. They’re another way those messages of being unworthy or not good enough get communicated. They’re definitely one of the forms of abuse I internalized the most. So I want to use this post as a chance to bring that into the light.
So why are unrealistic expectations so cunningly cruel?
Well, the first reason is because they are so hard to recognize.
They’re often expectations that very well could be reasonable for someone else, but they’re not at all reasonable for you right now. In this time. In this place. Under these circumstances.
But we’re either ignoring or discounting the circumstances that stand in the way.
Unrealistic expectations can also come from the fact that we want something so badly. And, again, we discount the obstacles either because we don’t want to wait, or we don’t want to feel the grief of not getting what we want.
I say unrealistic expectations are cunningly cruel because the damage they do is like death by a thousand cuts, just like all those other subtle forms of emotional abuse.
Unrealistic expectations inevitably lead to failure.
And while failure can be an amazing teacher, if we don’t realize the failure was due to unrealistic expectations – and we so often don’t – what we end up ‘learning’, the message we end up reinforcing, is that we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not capable enough, not worthy.
In other words, unrealistic expectations only reinforce messages of shame.
So, what’s the antidote?
I’d say the first step is giving yourself credit for the smallest of accomplishments.
Did you get up this morning? Woohoo! And cue the crowds doing the wave!
Oh, you showered, too? Round two of Woohoo!
Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I assure you it feels great! Feels even better if you give yourself credit out loud. In front of the mirror. Those are two total self-love catalysts right there. (No lie, speaking out loud to yourself in the mirror is the beginning of some powerful neurological rewiring.)
Why such adulation for the small things?
Because, like I said, it’s very hard to recognize where we’re being unrealistic. Because we’re either ignoring or discounting the obstacles.
Start acknowledging the the small things that you achieve and you’ll slowly but surely start seeing the things standing in your way, small and large.
And then giving them the respect that they’re due.
The fatigue. The long to-do list. The fear. The grief. The lack of time or money.
The second antidote is, when you fall short, to ask yourself this question:
“If I assume I did the best I could, what was standing in my way?”
And then ask yourself if you’ve been diminishing the significance of whatever that is. And if that is the only thing that’s been in your way.
Hint: You may need to bring a sponsor or a trusted friend into this question to help you be honest with yourself.
And, finally, take the answer seriously.
What I often tell myself is that something SHOULDN’T have that kind of power to get in my way, when in fact it does. Or I’ll look at just one thing, when there are several things. And so I end up mustering the resources to get over a 4-foot wall when the wall I’m facing is in fact 20 feet. Then I can’t figure out what the hell my problem is and why I can’t get past it.
And that, for me, is a major recipe for a whole host of shame-filled limiting messages about myself.
Do this enough and your self-esteem and self-confidence are pretty well crushed, aren’t they?
However, if you knew you were facing a 20-foot wall and not a 4-foot one, wouldn’t that change everything?
Wouldn’t you realize you needed more resources? More time, more energy, time to grieve, a support system, fewer things on your list.
And if you didn’t have the things you needed at the moment, wouldn’t you have a better sense of what to do about that?
At the very least, you would tell yourself different things about why you’re not over that wall. Instead of not being good enough or capable enough, you just might not be ready.
You can also apply these antidotes to those around you. Genuinely celebrate the small things. If they’re falling short of your expectations, assume they’re doing the best they can and then ask what might be in the way. The answer to this question will be much more fruitful when it comes to figuring out how to respond to these disappointments.
So, are you frequently disappointing yourself? What small things can you give yourself credit for? If you assume you are doing the best you can, what might be in the way? What could you do to take this obstacle more seriously? How can you offer the same grace to those around you?
Share your answers in the comments. I read every one.