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How Expectations Can Drive People Away and How to Let Go of Control

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you're not in this world to live up to mine.” ~Bruce Lee

About five years ago, I had a falling out with a close friend. I was irritated because she didn’t do the things I thought she should and she didn’t give as much as I did. I felt I had been very generous with her, and I expected her to do the same. I felt she owed me.

My anger became unmanageable and started seeping into pretty much every interaction we had. She began cancelling dinner plans and camping trips. She wouldn’t call me back after days of me leaving a message. It happened out of nowhere, and of course everything was her fault.

Except that it didn’t. And it wasn’t.

Not too long ago, I was a bit of a control freak. I didn’t know it, of course, and I would have described myself as open-minded and easy going. In reality, I was tormented by my own expectations.

Since I was a child, I had an image in my head about who I was supposed to be. What my family was supposed to look like. What house I was supposed to live in. What career success was supposed to mean. That’s a lot of supposing! I had always assumed these expectations were my future.

I am an artist by trade, and in my art studio, I have many tools. Paintbrushes, sanders, stencil cutters, and paper punches fill shelves up to the ceiling. However, I tell people that the most important tools I use are flexibility of mind and a practice of not having expectations as to the outcome. This allows new and amazing techniques to be discovered and yields paintings that continuously surprise and delight me. I find these tools are useful outside of the art studio as well.

As time went on and distance grew between me and my friend, I began to feel enraged by her apparent apathy toward me and everything that I “had done for her.”

I thought to myself, “I would never treat anyone that way. How dare she do that to me?” and “After all I’ve given her, she should want to give back!” Every thought I had praised me for all the good deeds I had done and blamed her for ruining our friendship. I was the victim and she was the wrong doer.

One day, I sat down to enlighten her about how she had negatively impacted our relationship. Her reaction was horrifying to me. She said she was going to take a step back from our friendship.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I mean, I was telling her how she could singlehandedly improve things. What was wrong with her that she didn’t understand that? We stopped speaking and I didn’t see her for a long time.

Then something life changing happened—sobriety. In the first year after I quit drinking, I learned a lot about myself and my need to control just about everything in order to meet my expectations.

I learned how my expectations of others (unexpressed, by the way, because “I shouldn’t have to say it!”) and the anger that followed when people didn’t act the way I thought they should, actually drove people away.

The entire time our friendship was breaking down, I thought that if she would just do the things I wanted her to do, not only would our friendship be fixed, but everyone involved would be better off. I knew better than she did. My way of living was better than hers. She, of course, ran away from me like I was on fire.

My need to control others was unfounded, unrealistic, and unattainable. It was a hard thing to admit that my way wasn’t better than her way and, in fact, people weren’t abandoning me. I was driving them to leave. I saw that other relationships in my life were also going down this path. I had to change.

One day after surfing, I went to sit on a bench overlooking the water. One of the “old guys” we surfed with, who lived across the street, came and talked with me as the sun was setting over the ocean and I was lamenting about the stresses in my life. He said one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me: “I don’t do stress. Stress is optional.”

WTF? How on earth does one not get stressed? Teach me, Oh Wise One. I thought deeply about this and about my issues with expectations and control. I needed control in order to meet my own expectations. When those expectations were not met, anxiety, anger and depression followed. Where does stress fit in?

The stress comes from trying to control actions that I think can bring my expectations to fruition. Have you ever seen the YouTube video of the zoo keeper trying to take a photo of all the baby pandas together? He expected a cute shot. All he got is a video of him trying to put baby pandas in a line, as one by one they continuously wandered off.

I know that’s kind of a cut and dry example, and life isn’t always cut and dry. However, the primary reason that I would get so pissed when my expectations were not met is rather simple: “My way is superior to everyone else’s way. How can people be so stupid and disrespectful?”

I don’t want to be an angry person. I don’t want to be unhappy with the people in my life. At some point, I realized that all of the control I was attempting to put on others was really me trying to make others meet my own expectations. That doesn’t work. Like ever. And it creates a huge amount of stress and frustration akin to trying keep baby pandas in line.

The real questions are: Who do I think I am? Why do I think I can control anything? What does it really matter if people are late, or my flight is cancelled, or my hat got lost when it flew off the top of the car.

Do these things affect my life? Sure, they can. Is it worth having an explosive hissy fit and making myself and everyone around me miserable? Uh, that would be a no. (Embarrassingly, the loss of that damn hat came close to ruining our evening.)

Advice from an Artist—Three Ways to Let Go:

1. Have zero expectations about how anything is going to turn out in the end.

It’s easier said than done, but if I went into the art studio expecting a certain painting to be created, I would be disappointed all the time. It’s so much easier to have an open mind and go with the flow.

This is also true when it comes to other people. By accepting the fact that people are not predictable, I am not attached to outcomes about how they “should” be.

 2. Stop trying to control everything.

My passion is creating, but I can’t always get in the studio to paint. And guess what? I don’t pitch a fit. I simply do what needs to be done to continue on.

For whatever reason, this is easy for me to apply to my business, and harder to apply to situations that involve people. I have to peel my fingers from the white-knuckle grip they have on how people should be and be okay with the possibility of “my way” not being an option. Perhaps somebody else has an awesome way I’ve never even thought of.

3. Be flexible and don’t be attached to outcomes.

I choose to open my mind to all the possibilities. In the studio, experimentation and the ability to adjust comes very easily. In life, not so much. Last minute changes in dinner plans aren’t going to kill me. When someone is “inconveniencing” me by wanting to meet at 8:00 instead of 6:30 I don’t get pissed anymore. I go for a hike because now I have time to.

Does that sound too simple? I don’t think it is.

My old friend and I have begun to repair our friendship. She moved away and I miss her dearly. We have talked about the past, but not in great detail. I try to show her that my thinking has changed and I don’t want anything from her but her friendship. It’s a hard thing to repair when you live far away but it’s mending little by little.

I no longer expect her or anyone to think like me. When I start feeling superior, I have to remember that I’m no better and no worse than any other person on the planet. I hope she forgives her wayward friend. At the time, I really thought that I was doing her a favor by showing her a better way to live. It was hard to realize that my ego was running the show.

When I’m working on a painting and I make a mark that I didn’t intend to, I don’t look at it as a “mistake.” I look at it as an opportunity to go down a road I may not have seen had it not been for that out of place mark. This is how I strive to live my life now. When a monkey wrench is thrown in, I put it in my back pocket figuring that a wrench may come in handy at some point.

And if it doesn’t, that’s okay. Just as with my art, I choose to live open-minded to all experiences. Also, just like my paintings, life isn’t only made up of straight lines. There are twists, turns, and interruptions. The question I must ask myself is, do I want to put up a fight whenever something unexpected happens, or go with the flow and gracefully see where this new road leads?

We can’t control other people and situations. But we can choose to set expectations aside and not put so much emphasis on how things are going to end up. After all, it truly is about the journey. And the destination? Well, sometimes the most beautiful views are the ones that we stumble upon unexpectedly, while on the way to where we’re “supposed” to be.

About Marigny Goodyear

Marigny Goodyear is an artist, living and working in Talent, Oregon with her husband, Goody and daughter, Nora.   She plays in Crescent City, California where the ocean keeps her strong and inspired and often visits her hometown of New Orleans (also nicknamed The Crescent City), where the rhythm of her heartbeat is renewed. Visit her at marignygoodyearart.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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  • Maria I. Martinez

    what tools (blogs, books, therapy, etc) did you use to get change your thinking?

  • Christopher Johnson

    We have had much the opposite reaction to the desire to control others. I really dislike feeling like a jerk for having to repeat myself several times and then becoming more stern when giving instructions to others. I do not have this problem with with family and friends because I REALLY believe every thing will be fine…but work is a whole other issue.
    As a caterer I am always open to new cooking methods, cultures and experiences. But in running a business your guests expect a certain consistency and dependability in your venture. There exist a degree of necessary “firmness” as regards the performance of your staff; they need to arrive on time, arrive properly attired, don’t disappear without telling someone, return tools/utensils where they belong; so others can use them. (OR so that they don’t get left a a venue located over a hundred miles away lol!) As of this writing we’ve lost bus tubs, large 18″ x 27″ cutting boards, five gallon buckets, and a 70 cup coffee maker! (they did grab the coffee pots so there’s that lol!) Those are just the ” how in the world?” things that have been misplaced. Unfortunately when running a business that utilizes other people to operate, many of the persons available are not always following “their passion” they simply need to pay their bills. A recent survey by The Department of Labor indicated that for the first time since the survey has been conducted, “finding capable employees” was the number one problem across ALL lines of industry surveyed.
    It is extremely important with me that everyone be treated with dignity. I pay $20 an hour (on average $6 to $8 more per hour than my competitors). I believe in treating and paying others how I’d want to be treated and paid for my work. Yet still I have only 3 people who I can say “yes she/he will do their job correctly to the best of their ability (in truth there are 3 women and 0 men in that group). So I’m constantly not able to work with people because they have an “it doesn’t matter that much” attitude. In many businesses like wedding catering, the condition of the final product is crucially important, and attention to detail is very necessary. If your staff is late, your food is often cold or inconsistent in quality, you will go out of business sooner than later. Just as importantly the people who are not “motivated” leave more work for those who are. I find that some people do need to worry less about the small details; but at the same time some people need to pay more attention to detail.js

  • cortland campbell

    I was reading this post and thought you were talking about Me. I realized I am some What of a control freak it because I’m being efficient but because I’m trying to live up to my own expectations. I am living and getting stressed when the outcomes are not how I intended. I am trying to let go and just live before it drives me insane. Your posts are helpful. Thank you

  • In this instance it was about control. But there is evidence that shows having high expectations encourages people to step up. We are taught this as teachers, to have high expectations of students and see them real their potential. I suppose the secret is having balance in all things.

  • Tricia

    Thank you for posting this, Marigny… it hits me on so many levels. The importance of letting go of control and expectations cannot be underestimated and it’s something I have to remind myself of frequently.

    -Tricia
    http://triciagodwin.weebly.com/blog

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Hi Tricia. You are most welcome! Thank you for reading! Yes…it is so important and a muscle that needs constant exercise in order to stay strong. Practice, practice, practice, right?

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Indeed AJ! Balance is so hard. For me it is definitely the control aspect that makes the expectations less than healthy. I can see how it can be a positive thing when applied to something like teaching. Also, maybe not having an emotional attachment to the expectation is a defining characteristic of healthy vs. unhealthy expectations? What do you think?

  • Marigny Goodyear

    You are so welcome and thanks for the comment! I am also a highly efficient individual. For me, it’s a blessing and a curse.

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Great question Maria! One book in particular really helped me: “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha” by Tara Brach. Also, one-on-one therapy and, surprisingly to me, group therapy helped me a lot. It was helpful to talk to people who had similar struggles. It took the isolation away.

  • lv2terp

    GREAT post!!! Thank you for sharing this message and your insight! Awesome points to ponder! 🙂

  • That could be the thing, yes. In relationships (emotional) everything is a little more intense and I know that the expectations are completely different for those in my family than in the classroom. I don’t get hurt by the students if they don’t live up to them for a start!

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Well that’s a good thing. Otherwise, being a teacher would be REALLY hard! Thanks for all of your comments!

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Thank you! I’m so glad it resonated with you. And thanks for commenting!

  • paul

    You finally put into words the ‘why’ for failed relationships I’ve been struggling with for years. I’ve literally said ‘I [know] better than [you do]. My way of living [is] better than [yours].’. Reading it here was quite the shock…. I have a lot of work to do.

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Hi Paul. Thanks for the comment. I remember how shocked I was the first time I realized that no, I don’t know it all, no, my way isn’t superior, and no, not everyone thinks about me as highly as I think about myself. I can (and do) laugh about it now, but then, it wasn’t funny in the slightest and I was truly confused about where to go from there. And yes…it was and still is a lot of work for me but I’ve gotten a whole lot better about catching my own BS before it leaves my lips.

  • Reine

    Hello. Great article 🙂

    I think something like this is happening to me. I got rejected romantically by a coworker and friend a long time ago. After a while we decided to continue our friendship. But even now when I feel a lot better about the rejection everything he does “wrong” I resent him and feel mistreated. Sometimes I think I have the right to feel offended (I’ve told him so and he has apologized) but many times I just have these expectations about him (not romantic… Just about other simple things like texting or coming to have breakfast with me etc) and he doesn’t meet them so I get mad and he feels bad for “mistreating” me and then I feel bad for being so exaggerated so I apologize for being mean. It’s a cycle… A bad one.

    I don’t wanna have fool expectations about him I just want us to be friends. He looks for me when he’s sad or angry and I’m here for him and so he is for me, I trust him and he trusts me (he has said it) so I don’t wanna take him for granted thinking he’ll just endure my behavior all the time just because we’re friends.

    I just wanna let go and go with the flow with him and completely forgive him for whatever he did or I think he did and just be a friend. He’s a good person and I don’t wanna lose him just because of my false expectations.

  • Karate Kan

    This hit close to home for me. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Yeray Saul

    Wow, great article I see so much of yourself in me! I struggle with the fact that when I express my love/care for others that I expect them to reciprocate that same love/care that I’ve shown them and when they don’t I get hurt and it makes me think they don’t care about me, because they didn’t reciprocate that same love/care. Still not sure how to master this?? But your article is something I will certainly keep in mind.

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Hi Yeray. So sorry I’m just seeing your comment now. It took me a long time to realize that others don’t (and will never) express their love the same way that I do. It frustrated the hell out of me. Now I say: “What other people do and how they act is really none of my business and for the most part, doesn’t have to do anything about me.” I still get frustrated but then I just repeat the last sentence to myself. It’s not about me, it’s about them. And it’s impossible to control others so allowing the frustration to effect my day-to-day is a practice in futility.

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Hi Karate Kan! So sorry I’m just replying to you. I’m so glad that this resonated with you. Thank you for commenting.

  • Marigny Goodyear

    Hi Reine. So sorry I’m just replying to your thoughtful comment. Thanks for writing. Yes, this is a situation that is familiar to me. In the past, I would have gone on and on with this cycle. Then I began to realize that if I have this dynamic with someone, that for me, the healthiest thing to do is to take a step back and bring the focus onto myself. Why am I continuing this cycle? I can’t control/change others. Trying to do so just causes more frustration. Since you can’t change your friend, Perhaps try changing your reaction to him within your cycle. By changing what you do, you change the dynamic. And for Pete’s Sake, don’t apologize for stating that you feel hurt. Just make sure you’re not saying it in a way meant to hurt and antagonize him.