The estimated reading time for this post is 7 minutes.
I spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, and I mean a LOT. I always feel the need to preface these posts in that way, for some reason. Because when it comes down to it, I’m just some random person on the internet. Why should you listen to anything I have to say? I don’t know. Maybe you’ll read it and find it resonates with you and that’s reason enough. But seriously. This stuff is on my mind just about all the time.
Today I’m thinking about expectations.
But not in the usual way. We’ve all heard the lines about expectations being killers of relationships and happiness and blah blah. And yeah, that can definitely be true. But it should also be taken with a grain of salt because, in case you haven’t noticed, we’re all human and flawed and we all have expectations. Every single one of us. And some of those expectations are even unfair (gasp!). That doesn’t make us bad or evil people, though. It just makes us people. But anyway, today I specifically want to talk about expectations we have around emotional reactions and emotional labor*. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of emotional labor, Rose Hackman’s piece for The Guardian and Jess Zimmerman’s piece on The Toast are both really great starting points. But the TL;DR summary is, emotional labor is the term we use to describe the work of unpacking, processing, and getting through emotionally difficult things, as well as the responses we have to others’ emotional output.
You see your thoughts and actions. You only see others’ actions.
Not everyone will feel this way, but if any of the following lines of thought resonate for you, then this article is definitely for you: “My partner doesn’t care about Issue X as much as I do. I can tell because of the way they react every time I bring it up.” “I deal with my emotions much better than [other person]. They always overreact, but I sit and think about my feelings most of the time.” “It’s not fair, I give [other person] way more of my emotional bandwidth than they give me. When is it my turn?” Maybe you don’t have those thoughts all the time, or maybe there are caveats for you, but I’m thinking a lot of people will find something in there they can relate to.
Here’s the secret: we all feel that way, at least some of the time. We all feel like we’re doing most of the work in some situation or another. We all sometimes feel like we’re the ones who care more, or do more of the emotional labor. And sometimes we’re right! But sometimes we’re not. The problem starts here: expecting the external reactions of others to live up to the level of your internal reactions is a recipe for disaster. You have access to your internal states at all times. You know what you are thinking and feeling, what you have considered, what mental accommodations you’ve made for the other party, exactly how much effort you’ve put into understanding their side, and so forth. But what you see in return is only the end product of the other person’s mental and emotional process. You don’t necessarily see the effort they’ve put in, the thoughts and emotions they had along the way. You see your process, but only their result.
Your feelings don’t need to dictate your actions
So how do we combat this? There are lots of way, I’m sure, but for this article I want to focus on the practice of mood independent behavior. (Aside: I’d like to thank my therapist for that term. I don’t think he invented it, but he introduced me to it, and it is an amazing tool to have in your mental health toolbox. It’s by no means easy, especially for someone as stubborn as I am, but it’s effective.) And look, every discussion like this has its caveats. Yes, there are people who are genuinely emotionally abusive and really don’t care, and really do do less emotional work than you. And those people deserve to be unceremoniously kicked out of your life. But for the situations where it’s a case of imbalanced or unfair expectations, it’s up to you to own that, and to figure out how to continue showing up for that relationship.
“But tell me more about this mood independent behavior!” you implore. Of course, gentle reader. Of course. It’s pretty self explanatory; like the name suggests, it’s when you act independent of your mood! Look, we all have moments of irrational sadness, anger, disappointment, upset, etc. I’m not even talking about mental health here. I mean that in the course of a day, you might have emotions that have little to no bearing on what is actually happening around you. Maybe something someone said reminded you of your asshole ex and you got mad, or of your grandfather before he died, and you got sad, or anything else. In these cases, you can usually tell that you’re not angry at or sad because of the person in front of you, and so you typically can keep your emotions out of the conversation at hand. This is an example of mood independent behavior.
And I want to be really clear that I am not advocating anything to the effect of “emotions don’t belong in conversations” or “you should always hide your emotions.” HELL to the NO to that. But there is a difference between appropriate/relevant emotional reactions, and out of place emotional reactions. It’s not random co-worker’s fault that they said something your douche of an ex used to say all the time, and they don’t deserve your anger for it. Your douche of an ex, however, definitely deserves your anger.
We can take more personal responsibility
If what is happening really is an imbalance of expectations, then that’s on you. You are the one with the expectations, and someone not living them up to them is your problem to deal with. This is the ultimate in taking responsibility for your emotions and beliefs. It doesn’t mean you’re not “allowed” to have expectations, or that having them makes you a bad person. It means that when someone fails to live up to your expectations, you have to understand that that person does not owe you the meeting of your expectations.
And what’s more, you get to decide what you do about that, because taking responsibility for something means that you also get to be the one making the decisions. Do you change your expectations? Or find a way to convince the person that your expectations are beneficial for them to live up to? Do you decide that, ultimately, this is not going to work out? I’m not interested in judging expectations as “reasonable” or “not reasonable” but rather, “achievable” and “not achievable.” Maybe, for whatever reason, the object of your expectations will never meet them. Realistically speaking, you have two options: change your exceptions or find someone who can meet them.
Whatever you do decide to do, it’s on you to act from a place of understanding and personal responsibility instead of from a place of hurt and anger. Again, I’m emphasizing, this doesn’t mean you have to be nice to people who have harmed you. But it’s worth examining whether you have been harmed, or if your feeling are just hurt over something that you have control over, and that the other person does not.
I’d like to end this with the recognition that none of this is easy. if you decide to give this a shot, know that you won’t be perfect at it. You will fail repeatedly. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself when that happens. You’re fighting the good fight.
- *: sometimes people differentiate between emotional labor and emotional work, where the former is actually paid labor that requires emotional presence (sex work, nursing, etc), while emotional work is the thing that we do ourselves when we need to process emotions or deal with another’s emotions as a part of our lives, and not as a part of our professions. I personally find this distinction outdated and not a part of the modern dialogue around this subject, so I am using “emotional labor” to mean the unpaid stuff here.