The straitjacket of expectation

And other negative self-biases I have

Trybe: People's expectations are the “bars” we use to ...

Expectations are an entirely natural psychological phenomenon. They are an easy way for use to parse and compartmentalise the world around us. With expectations, or schema, we begin to understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour in particular circumstances.

I’ve included the image above (by David Hayward over on NakedPastor) because, while that is true, and it’s an efficient psychological mechanism, expectations are also prisons that we make for ourselves. Our ability to understand what is a “correct” response or an “incorrect” response often confronts us with intrinsic difficulty when that expectation is defied.

It’s quite tricky to constantly adapt to the expectations that other people have of you. For years, I felt like I was pigeonholed into this idea of me being a “bitch”. I never conceived of myself as a bitch, but that’s what people termed my dry, sarcastic humour. It was never of malicious intent, from my point of view, but it’s also something that I felt I had to live up to, otherwise I’d lose that thing that people wanted me around for. You always want to live up to, or sometimes down to, the image that people have of you, for acceptance and security. It doesn’t take a genius to work out how incredibly damaging that is. Let me give you a different example.

When my dad died, my expectation of what grieving should be, and what it should look like, was more painful than the actual event. Instead of giving myself that time to process and to be open and receptive to my feelings, I was very conscious of what I should be doing. I felt like I shouldn’t have been able to function. I felt like I should’ve felt more sad than I felt at that moment; that I should have cried more, that I should have more regrets. When I went against what I thought grieving should be, it led to unpleasant reflections upon myself.

You’re emotionless. You’re ungrateful. You’re spoiled. You’re callous. You’re selfish.

These were all things that I told myself as a judgment on my own reactions to my own grief. I felt like because I didn’t fall apart and I didn’t sit around crying all the time, that I wasn’t grieving and that I didn’t care. And, if I didn’t care, then that meant that I was a horrible person. That I wasn’t grateful for all that my father did for me. Really, I think all of these conceptions of what I should be doing, or what I should be feeling, have entirely distracted me from what I do feel. All of the emotions above are informed of what somebody else might think of me from the outside looking into my life. It’s as if I’m judging myself from an aside.

When I didn’t go to my dad’s funeral, I was preoccupied about what his side of the family might think of me. That my non-attendance might suggest that I didn’t have any feelings about it all. I haven’t actually spoken to my dad’s side of the family since it happened. That gets difficult too, because I worry about what they might think about that, and what they think of my outward display of grieving. Truthfully, I don’t want to speak to them because I don’t want to see theirs. I feel like I’ve somehow managed to skate through the process, waiting for a huge emotional breakdown which may or may not be coming. Seeing their pain and their loss makes me fear that there is this huge, repressed emotional minefield that might burst out if I actually have to confront that it’s real.

What good have you done? It should’ve been you.

Another part of my thought process after my father died is dealing with all of the great things that happened to me as a result of his death. Without my father dying, I wouldn’t be able to afford property in London, and I have a pretty brilliant and fortunate existence. It seems strange to end a sentence that begins with a personal tragedy with the word “fortunate”, but I know that that does put me in a very good position. Sometimes I feel horrendously guilty that I have derived such joy from something that should signal the crumbling of my existence.

I suppose that with any big event that reminds you of your own mortality, it makes you consider what you’ve actually contributed to the universe. Suddenly, I was confronted with the fact that my dad, who I hadn’t exactly had the best relationship, I had to think of in an entirely new light. Once he was dead, I could more easily see the sacrifices that he had made and the effort he had gone to to provide for his family and, ultimately, he wasn’t a bad person. Compared then, to me, who doesn’t even go to his dad’s funeral and buys a flat, it makes me feel like I’m just not as good of a person. Not as pure of a human and therefore a more fair contender. If, indeed, mortality even works that way. Which I’m not confident that it is.

It’s sometimes hard to strive for self improvement without also being negative about who you are currently. I think conceiving of myself as a “finished product” definitely made me quite aggressively, viscerally critical of lots of aspects of my being. Imagining that 24-year-old me back in February 2019 was the final version that my dad knew filled me with a sense of shame. An idea that I genuinely hadn’t confronted before. It suddenly brought to light all of these insecurities and negative biases about myself in the name of “self improvement”. Except it doesn’t really put me in the mood to improve, it just makes my brain feel like there’s no getting out from under that cloud. So here are some of my favourite mean words.

I say favourites. They’re annoying, but they plague me like locusts, so you might as well hear them.

You’re lazy. You can’t stick at things. You give up too easily.

Oh this is a great one. It’s also, doubtless, true. So it’s probably less of a negativity bias, and more of a healthy dose of realism, which is never a bad thing. The reason I believe this one to be true is because, simply, I don’t like putting in a lot of effort. I can, fairly easily, but I’ve just never really had to. Honestly, I breezed through school. I carefully whittled down my extra-curriculars to only include things I was already good at without any effort. Singing, for example. That’s something I’ve never needed to especially cultivate. It just sort of happens. And when there are songs I can’t do, I don’t like the song and I don’t sing it.

I want to challenge myself, but there are multiple things hanging me back. There’s many aspects of laziness when it comes to me, which is both mental and physical. On a physical front, I’m confronted with being told “you won’t stick with it, don’t bother getting a gym membership”. Yup, thanks for that one. You know who you are.

Then, it’s sort of this weird mental spiral. Firstly, as a man who is attracted to men, it’s always a little bit of that conception of “they look attractive. I simultaneously want to be with them, and also be them”. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wanted to be that ridiculously ripped person where everyone’s like “HoW hAve ThEY doNE THaT?!“. It’s not as if it’s quite that simple though.

Obviously the ideal would just be to be happy with the body I currently have and be very secure in that. But then, I feel like I can’t post a picture of myself on social media because then people are going to think that I’m vain. I can’t go to the gym because then it’s like admitting I’m insecure about my body, and that’s embarrassing. Equally, I can’t not go to the gym because then people are going to think that I’m oblivious. Also, at the same time, I hate not being good at things instantly so I don’t like going to the gym because it makes me feel fat and unhealthy and insecure. Yet not going to the gym makes me feel lazy, fat, unhealthy and insecure. Also, what if, by going to the gym, I just become hyper focussed upon my body while at the moment I can just deal with it with a healthy dose of rejection and casual deflection?

And then there’s the mental aspect, and the creative ones. Most of what holds me back on that front is the foreboding sense that I can’t actually live up to the expectations that people have for my intelligence. I was always a high flier in school, with little effort. I somehow managed to not go to most of my lectures at university and still come out of it with a First. I haven’t found academics especially tricky, ever.

I don’t really want to know where my boundary is. I don’t like knowing that there’s a limit to that intelligence, so surely it’s better to just keep in my very safe lane without pushing further on from that and facing disappointment and the uncomfortable sensation that I’m not as extraordinary as I’d like to credit myself as being?

Equally, from a creative point of view, which is largely what this blog is, I worry that I’d pour all of my heart and creative energy into a project, like the book I’ve been planning for years, only to have it just not to be good. At least not achieving my ambition of having a published book isn’t a failure if I just never try. Then I can carry on with the blissful headspace of “I could if I tried” and then never actually test the theory.

That also comes from my blog as well. Part of it is that I feel like it’s only worthwhile if it’s successful, forgetting, of course, that part of this project is like an online diary of my own reactions and my own thoughts. Then I also get that crippling pressure of ensuring that said thoughts are entertaining or unique, and I get so caught up on whether or not my opinion is “right” or not.

I think my lack of faith in my own point of view and my own voice and ideas has probably stemmed back quite some time, back to when I took Psychology at University instead of English Literature. I don’t think I could quite handle the uncharted road of forming one’s own responses, and it’s much safer to just be told what to think about things instead. Which is definitely easier until it comes to politics, and then there’s just no unbiased source of information for that minefield. Plus, of course, the decision to do something practical instead of properly committing myself to what I wanted to do, which was to be a writer, but I was overwhelmingly informed that I’d never make a living off my writing, so I’d need to just write in my spare time. I suppose without somebody else having faith in my words or my ability, it sort of undermines one’s own faith in it.

You’re weird.

I mean, this one’s fairly obvious. I am pretty weird. That’s cool, though. It’s strange that I can simultaneously conceive of myself as weird and boring. Surely one can be one or the other. Nevertheless, both are negatives I say to myself on a daily basis. Well, not strictly. Weird isn’t necessarily negative, and consciously I don’t conceive of it as one, but it’s still a criticism my brain uses. Weird.

Nobody cares what you have to say. Nobody wants to spend any time with you. You’re boring.

This is one of those ones that’s played on repeat. Like any female artist on BBC Radio 1, where it just seems to be on whenever you tune in.

I am an introvert. I understand that. I’m very comfortable with that. However, it’s not exactly the most conducive way of making and maintaining friendships. I suppose I’ve yet to find many people who I can occasionally check in with and still have the same rapport as if we hadn’t spent any time apart. I honestly don’t need to speak to people that often, and I am very fortunate that I live with my fiancé so it’s not as if I’m starved of human interaction. What’s more, as a teacher, when I’m working I get more than enough socialisation. It still feels isolating, though.

I spent most of my school existence sailing socially down the middle. I wasn’t exactly picked on, nor was I popular. I won’t pretend to know the psychological impacts of being bullied, but sailing through the middle is damaging in its own way. That’s just no attention. Like you’re not even noticeable enough to be disliked or liked. You’re just sort of there, relatively inoffensively.

As time wears on, not much has dispelled my notion of feeling invisible. I don’t get in contact with old friends, and I think lots of them interpret me not speaking to them as me not valuing them as friends, which is certainly not true. Obviously, the more that time wears on and the longer there is without contact, I then start to think that they just don’t want to involve me. I see photos of my university friends hanging out on Instagram or Facebook and I’m not sure at what point I started not being invited to things, or when my messages stopped being replied to on the odd, increasingly rare occasion I muster up the courage to actually reach out.

In a way, having this blog has somewhat cemented the idea that I am invisible. I mean, heck, I have hundreds of friends on Facebook, yet only around 50 of my friends who care about enough to show their support through liking (which I really appreciate, thanks guys), and even fewer who actually engage and respond to the things I have to say. In fact, I very much doubt that anybody will make it this far. I don’t think my mum even reads these.

I mean, it’s fair enough. I talk on this site about all of the things that interest me, and I’m aware that it’s not exactly cool to talk about musical theatre or TV as much as I do. I’m very fortunate that I do now have spaces where I can share that love and passion, and it’s a huge connection between my fiancé and myself, but it’s not exactly something that I especially share with the people I met at university or school.

I suppose part of where this becomes negative is the extent to which I’ve yet to master maintaining relationships while also having a very short social endurance. I just am not able to socialise as frequently and as intensely as lots of other people are, but equally when I do want to socialise, I know that it can be frustrating to the people around me if I just randomly pop up here and there. It hardly screams reliable, and it’s tricky to explain that to people sometimes that that’s just how my brain works, but I do genuinely have time and affection for all of the friends in my life, even if I’m not constantly, or even infrequently, keeping in contact with them.

This conception isn’t even just limited to my friendships. I suppose a small part also comes from my family. I am the youngest within my family. A role I feel like I have far outgrown. Along with being the youngest, you also get a reputation as being the most emotional, the most careless, the most immature. I mean, sure, that makes sense when you’re a child and you’re literally less developed than everybody else around you. Of course those traits come out. That doesn’t remove the other traits, however. I often feel that with my family, it’s a bit like facing a losing battle. My opinions and viewpoints seem to hold less import or weight compared to other, older members of my family who are considered to be more wise, or more articulate, or more adult. Not having one’s viewpoint listened or respected to to the same extent as someone else who literally says the same thing as you is by nature galling, and only serves to add to this expectation I have of not having anything of value to contribute. That I should just keep my mouth shut, and let the adults talk.

I started this post by saying that the expectations of other people are like a cage. It is, but it’s a cage of my own making. Not only do other people’s interactions restrict and constrain me, but so too do my own expectations. My own expectations for what I am capable of, of what I should be doing compared to what I am doing are sticks I use to metaphorically beat myself with. My expectation of what somebody of my age should be like, informed by the things that I consume from social media and that I see others doing, is a standard I uphold myself to, and revile myself when I fail to live up to that.

There is no “correct” way to excel at life. Success looks different to each person. For me, it’s not about how much money I make, but I suppose my version is feeling like I am the best version of me that I can be. I’m not there yet, but at least I am open and aware of the areas that I need to improve in. Unless there’s something glaringly obvious that I’m missing. There probably is.

In order to be my best self, I definitely need to shake myself away from the shame that comes from what I’m not doing, and start to treat my brain the way I would a best friend. My constant level of inwardly turned disappointment is a drain, and I think that I need to start feeling that level of support and love from within before I’m even able to appreciate that within the larger world, as I know, objectively, I have a lot of people in my life who care for me and demonstrate that care for me brilliantly.

I need to start being more aware of these negative thought processes and how to quiet them. Self improvement is never going to come from a place of self hatred. Hatred is a force that serves to suppress and subdue. It is not an environment in which a person can grow and thrive. So, in order to grow, I need to open myself up to the world and dispel all my conceptions of how others consider me. There’s nothing wrong or broken with the way I interact with the world, but there is something wrong with the way my brain tells me the world interacts with me.

My perception of what is expected of me isn’t real. Well, perhaps, in a way, it is. Even if it is true that people hold these ideas of me, there’s no reason why thoughts in somebody else’s head should be a constraint upon my existence and my growth.

I still find it tricky to conceptualise how to strive for self improvement without it making it seem as if my current self is sufficient. Part of self improvement is isolating the aspects of yourself that could be changed and that you want changed, but how can you practice self love at the same time as analysing yourself so critically? That’s a tough code to crack. I suppose in these situations, it’s important to be mindful and reflective, not judgmental or critical. I can acknowledge that I am lazy without giving in to the negative connotations that that word has upon my self worth. Society has imbued words like “lazy” and “fat” with such intense power about what else that looks like in a person. It’s hard to attribute words like lazy to oneself without it then reflecting upon the whole person as a negative.

We are all more than the sum of our parts. I am enough as I am. My worth is not dictated by what other people think. My worth derives from the fact that I am the only human being in existence who has lived my life. I am the only person who has rattled around in this brain and interacted with the world in the way that I have. In a universe that is full of boundless opportunity, full of infinite, beautiful creations, I am the only me. That’s worth enough. I may not be the most attractive, or the cleverest, or the funniest, but I am the person who is the most me, so it’s up to me to put that energy into the universe. The things I do do not necessarily reflect who I am. Not going to the gym doesn’t suddenly make me a bad person. Not being contacted by my friends doesn’t mean that I don’t have an amazing support system. It doesn’t mean that I’m not worthy of friendship, and that there’s nothing to appreciate of love about me.

Ultimately, through trying to live up to what I think I should be, and what I consider other people expect me to be, just serves to block me from what I can achieve and who I can and want to be. It stops me from exploring all of the opportunities that I want to, out of fear of what other people might think and it strips me of my own unique essence. It’s not an overnight process, but it’s a worthwhile one regardless.

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