Monday, March 28, 2011


The question was whether it is better to have unrealistically high expectations or to have lowered expectations. I think the question is unclear and asked whether the question was whether it was better to have unrealistically high expectations or unrealistically low expectations, or whether the question was whether it was better to have unrealistically high expectations or lower, more realistic expecations. That clarifying question was not answered.

The next question, which I didn’t ask, is whether we are talking about a natural predisposition, or whether we are debating which kind of expecting one should cultivate. Is it better to tend toward having unrealistically high expectations or is it better to cultivate unrealistically high expectations are two different questions, both leading to very different discussions.

Given the original poster’s response, that unrealistically high expectations might be a useful coping tool, I am going to assume that we are debating the cultivation of expectations.

There is one woman who feels very strongly that lower expectations (whether lower than high and therefore more realistic, or lower than realistic was not made clear) are preferable. She claims that the person with lowered expectations will be pleasantly surprised when something better happens, but that the person with high expectations will never be satisfied.

It may be that she is thinking of her own life when she makes this claim, even as I am thinking of my own life when I take the opposite position, and so I hope to be kind and gentle. To both of us.

This woman further stipulated that one should have high expectations for oneself and low expectations of others. I don’t recall if she mentioned events or situations.

That sounds like a lot of work to think meanly of others and highly of myself. It sounds, I’ll say it, elitist: others simply cannot live up to my standards and quality and I shouldn’t expect it of them.

When I expect my colleagues to say racist things, to be unprofessional, to be petty and uncharitable, I usually find that these expectations turn out to have been very realistic. When I expect them to be interesting, well-informed, creative, and kind, I am sometimes surprised to find that these expectations were also realistic. Sometimes, at least, the expectations I cultivate reveal much more about the things to which I am paying attention, and about my attitudes and judgments about others, than they do about ‘the real nature of things.’ This isn’t to say that the racism isn’t there to be seen, but that the racism and the pettiness are not the whole story. The ways in which I frame my expectations of others can determine the kinds of story I tell about the world. They make the world more manageable by eliminating (or ameliorating) surprise: though I may be surprised when my racist colleague says something enlightened, by calling him or her (in my head) The Racist, I learn to forget to look for other parts in his or her personality. I make the world smaller instead of letting my idea of the world grow larger.

When I expect very little from my boyfriend by the way of conversation, time spent together, the desire to communicate with me and not just the me in his head, I find that I am even less satisfied with what I get. Instead of enjoying the time we have together and delighting in his company and conversation, I realize that I have been consumed with measuring that time and company and conversation. Measuring is not delightful. Lowering and lowering my expectations in this case requires constant measuring: are my expectations lower than they were yesterday? Good. Measuring and perhaps a little air of martyrdom.

When I expect very little from myself or from my life, I find that I push people away, I fall back upon rehearsed performances of anxiety, I grow envious and self pitying. No, I will never get a job. I’ll have to go into Exile. How many times have I said this? Worse, how many times have I said this when others have congratulated me for having made progress on my dissertation? How many times have I so responded when others, who have more faith in me than I do with myself, have tried very gently to remind me that the future I picture may not be accurate?

These are three things: framing the world, measurement and evaluation, and faithfulness. The expectations I have or choose to have tell a story about how I interpret and move through the world. They reveal the ways in which and the extent to which I thrust measurement and evaluation between myself and the people and situations that make up my world. They are themselves a measure of the faith or faithlessness—better, unfaithfulness—that makes up my attitude toward people and events and situations—the world.

When I expect little from others and from myself, I tell a story about all of us that turns us into the kind of people from whom little (or little good, anyway) can be expected. I tell a story about essences and about worth.

When I measure my interactions with others and when I try to scrupulously measure my own responses and beliefs, I substitute my measurements for people and events and situations and even, sometimes for myself. I don’t respond to a friend as my friend, but as a quantity of experiences which I then judge. I become my friends’ and lover’s judge and set myself up as arbitor of reality and of goodness.

I am unfaithful to my colleagues, acquaintances, family and friends when I expect very little out of them. I am unfaithful to my boyfriend when I expect very little from him. I am unfaithful to myself when I expect very little from myself now or in the future.

Given this, I am lead to believe that I must carefully craft my expectations based upon the love I wish to bear. Not even upon the love I do currently bear, because that love is tainted with the ghosts of previous determinations and judgments and infidelities and despair. The love I wish to bear is free from these things. It is upon this love that I will build my expectations.

1 comment:

Christine said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. Sorry I didn't adequately clarify your question. I left the interpretation open just to see how people would respond. While I agree that having low expectations of a person can lead one to miss positive aspects of that person, I'm not sure that I agree that it is elitist to have higher expectations for myself than for another in some ways. Personally, I would be frustrated with other people if I held them up to the standards I have for myself, and I think it would be unfair to them. I would rather enjoy them as they are to the extent it is possible. Todorov talks about striving for the perfection of oneself and the happiness of others. (I'm sure that other thinkers have expressed a similar sentiment). I try to live by those words, which is not to say that I don't fail...often.