Dealing with Other People’s Expectations

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“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

– William Shakespeare

Expectations are a strange thing because so much of our behaviour revolves around it. On a day to day basis, we spend time consciously or unconsciously attempting to meet the needs, demands and expectations of others. According to famous sociologist Erving Goffman and his dramaturgical approach, we don several roles during the day – as someone’s child, parent, sibling, partner, employee, friend – and each of these roles come with norms that are acceptable and may even be assigned. Deviations from the “script” of the role we play are not always entertained. Direct or indirect rewards may be given when we match up to our role, direct or indirect punishment may be given when we don’t.

One may wonder why we think it is so important to be a part of an exchange which at times may seem quite burdensome; meeting expectations is not always easy. Perhaps this great value given to meeting expectations bears an expectation in return: an expectation that we will be acknowledged, appreciated and most importantly accepted. This very real and human need for acceptance acts as a strong motivation in daily living, often without our even realizing it.

The complicated thing about expectations is that they are all about relationships. Your smartphone has no expectations from you, but the people you constantly use it to call and send funny memes of the day to most certainly do. Expectations have a history, a personality and a colour of their own that changes with each individual, each setting and each relationship. And when certain expectations aren’t met, they can have a psychological impact on everyone involved.

The pressure of meeting another’s expectations may lead to stress, anxiety and depression as well as carry over to physical health such as induce hypertension, ulcers and gastrointestinal disorders. Well being involves both body and mind, so when one is affected, there are consequent changes in the other.

Freud got it right when he said that in some form or another our behaviour as adults usually echo patterns internalized from childhood. Our most important and deep-rooted social connections as children are with our primary caretakers, usually parents. Entire adult lives are spent trying to live up to our parent’ expectations, to earn their pride, their love and their approval. This is reflected even in other relationships, whether in the way we choose romantic partners or lead our professions. Behind each choice is an implicit need we are trying to fulfil or an expectation we are trying to uphold. Explicit expectations are comparatively easy to meet, but what about these expectations that you may not even be aware you have or are trying to meet?

Following are some ways to better understand and navigate this web of expectations that we have spun and live in on a daily basis.

1.      Observe the people in your circle. Psychologist Albert Bandura posited that a great deal of understanding happens by observational learning, wherein we assess the situation by looking at people or “models” present in the setting you are in. What do the people in your life expect of you? How do you find yourself trying to match up?


2.      Reflect on your needs

It is important to identify what you expect of other people, and what needs of yours these are fulfilling. For instance, do you look for a caregiver in your partner or are you looking for friendship in it? Knowing who you are and what you expect from others helps a great deal in setting realistic expectations and avoiding disappointments.


3.      When in doubt, just ask

As mentioned earlier, expectations are not always made explicit, so if you have questions about what is expected of you in a particular area in terms of your work or behaviour, ask a friend, colleague or mentor. This clarification may clear your doubt, and others appreciate proactive effort.


4.      Assess

Take the time to critically evaluate whether what is being asked of you or what you are expecting of another is realistic and reasonable. You will find that some expectations don’t hold up well under scrutiny and may be purely emotion-driven. Creating clear boundaries will help you to be more authentic as well as efficient.


5.      Be sincere in your communication

Following from previous points, it is extremely important to communicate your own expectations to others as well as express to what level it is possible for you to meet those of others. Being honest goes a long way in creating harmonious relationships and healthy expectations.


There is no clear rule-book yet we each dance this complicated dance every single day, learning and adjusting. And then we have our own expectations too: expectations we have of other people and expectations we have of ourselves, and sometimes of some people we stop having any expectations at all. The truth is that it isn’t easy or even possible to meet every expectation, especially since all the variables involved (you, the other person, the situation and the expectation itself) are constantly shifting. You know you have to do the dance, but no one tells you what steps to follow. Surprisingly though – considering how complicated it all is, expecting and being expected of – we manage to carry on, we humans, the masters of ingenuity and adaptability.