“Expectations are premeditated resentments.”
“Resentments are like taking poison and
waiting for the other person to die.”
Program wisdom contains lots of annoying clichés. The reason they sound so hackneyed and are so often repeated is that they are true. False aphorisms abound, but most of those in the recovery community have survived because of the old “test of time.” These two are among them.
There are “good” and “bad” expectations (I prefer “skillful” and “unskillful”, but for the purpose of establishing a binary distinction here, either will do). The difference is in communication and intent.
- Skillful: I am a manager/parent/spouse/sponsor/whatever. I communicate clearly what I expect, my reasons for my expectation(s), and what I need to fulfill them. That’s a skillful expectation. Both parties understand the deal. I have the opportunity to express what I need, and the other party has an opportunity to ask questions, object, offer alternatives and so forth, if they feel it’s necessary.
- Unskillful: They should know that I want to go out to dinner to celebrate (whatever), and where I want to go. He should know that I don’t like (whatever). She knows that I don’t like people talking to me when I’m driving. They know that I have to work in the afternoon; they should plan dinner at noon instead of three! She knew that I wanted Great Aunt Agatha’s quilt! Blah, blah, blah…
Any time we assume that another person understands our wants and needs without having expressed them clearly, we are setting ourselves up for a resentment. Think about it.
- Have I never forgotten something important to someone else?
- Have I never gotten busy and forgotten to write something down?
- Have I never been distracted and something simply didn’t get into memory when I only halfway heard it?
- Did I never discount something a person said as unfinished business when—as far as they were concerned—the subject was settled?
It isn’t uncommon for us addicts to imagine that since we are the center of the universe other folks should know what we’re thinking and should anticipate our needs.
That’s appropriate thinking for a four-year-old child. In their minds, they really are the center of the universe. However, we begin to orient ourselves in the world around us by age five or six and become aware that we have responsibilities to others as well. The most important of these responsibilities is clear communication. That’s the ideal basis for human interactions of all kinds, whether interpersonal or driving on the highway (think traffic rules, signaling, etc.).
Unfortunately, all the wonderful niceties of human interaction may not have been modeled for us by our parents and other folks close to us. We may have learned to attempt to “read between the lines” and anticipate other folks’ behavior because it was necessary in our attempts to control the outcome and obtain what we needed. Or we may have had the example of needy people who expected us to read their minds and give them what they needed.
In either case, no one was showing us how to communicate needs effectively. Since we didn’t know how, we adopted the methods that we were shown: the ineffective communication of a dysfunctional family. We carried those ineffective skills on into our own adulthood. We were grownups trying to be part of an adult world, with only the skills of a child. We didn’t even know it, consciously, but a lot of that feeling of not fitting in, of not knowing the rules, was because we didn’t understand how to communicate effectively—or the other parties didn’t, and we didn’t know how to bridge that enormous gap.
Never having been taught does not relieve our responsibility to learn effective communication skills. Good relationships are built on equality, and that’s built on clear, complete communication. There are no mind readers in healthy systems, whether family, with friends, in the rooms of recovery, or in business. Just as we need to know what is expected of us in order to fulfill others’ expectations (or not), they need to understand ours clearly and completely.
First we change ourselves, then we criticize others. Unless we learn and apply these things ourselves, we can’t expect others to respond appropriately to our requests that they do so. Therapy can help. Couples can discuss these things and choose to learn them together. In other areas, we can be good examples. If we want to be happy in the world around us, we have to learn the rules—finally, after all those years.