Unmet expectations are among the chief reasons people struggle with depression, anxiety, and anger. If you want peace of mind, a great place to start is by examining the expectations you have of other people. Let me, at the outset, be clear that I’m not endorsing the school of thought which claims the secret of happiness is found in low expectations. My point is that we must be careful that our expectations aren’t misplaced and aren’t divorced from reality.
Several years ago, I was going through a difficult time. I was attending a fairly large church in Reston, Virginia and reached out to the lead pastor for counseling. The church office passed me onto one of the associate pastors, and that turned out to be a less than rewarding experience. Angry, I sent a letter to the senior pastor protesting his lack of concern for me in his refusal to invest time in my welfare. My expectations were entirely driven by my needs and my emotions. And they were unfair and unrealistic. In a church of several hundred people, it’s ludicrous to expect that each individual attendee would have direct, one-on-one, on-demand access to the senior pastor at any time. What’s more, a pastor is not a therapist. While there are some very gifted and trained counselors serving as pastors, most senior pastors (even of smaller churches) are geared more toward teaching and preaching rather than one-on-one counseling. And, finally, the model for the church (according to the New Testament) is that the congregation carry one another’s burdens (which are emotional and spiritual needs) – not that the pastor does so. Many years later, when I myself became a pastor, I reached out to him and apologized in person for my insensitivity.
When it comes to what you can rightfully expect from others, you must look beyond your needs. You may need $1,000, but it doesn’t mean the person you’re talking with has $1,000 to give you. You may need someone to come sit by your bedside while you’re sick, but that doesn’t obligate the person you ask to do so. Your needs don’t determine what you can or should expect from other people. This is among the hardest lessons to learn, but it’s crucial that we all learn it.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t help other people. There are indeed many cases where able-bodied people fully able to render help or encouragement have failed to do so. This has happened in families, in churches, with friends, and in communities. We do have a responsibility to help others, but that responsibility is based on not only the needs of the other person but also our capacity to give assistance. The rule of thumb is best expressed by the ancient biblical proverb which says: “Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of thine hand to do it” (Proverbs 3:27). If you can render a genuinely good word or deed to a person that needs and deserves it, then you should do so — so long as it’s within your capacity.
Too often, we get angry or upset because we expect more than what other people are able to give. A parent, for example, can’t expect a child to think or act like an adult. A boss can’t expect a youthful employee in his first job to perform at the level of a seasoned veteran with multiple years of industry experience. Whether we’re talking about your job, business, college, school, church, community organization, or neighborhood – the principle is the same. Expectations must be based on a realistic assessment of the person or persons in question. Remember that other people are human beings too. They have lives, families, friends, responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, and problems — just as you do.
And even when we assess that the other party is able to help more than they do, we must still guard our expectations. While we can certainly encourage others to do better or to give more, we have no control over what they will do. And when it comes to our personal happiness, we must never tie that to other people. We must ultimately accept people for who they are, not for what we want them to be. Ashley Fern, a writer for Elite Daily, puts it this way: “Once you realize that your expectations cannot change people, the better off you will be.”
When it comes to having your personal needs met, be careful not to increase the burden others might need to help with by making poor choices. Sometimes, we add to our own problems by doing things we shouldn’t. And then we get mad at others after we’ve dug our own deep hole. Don’t do that. Be wise and responsible in your own choices and decisions – especially when you’re in pain and in need.
It’s also smart to “dig your well before your thirsty.” Develop a wide network of positive relationships, so that when needs do come, you’re not relying on just one or two people. Too many burdens on one person can crush that person. Have lots of friends. And invest in those friendships ahead of time – unconditionally and with no strings attached.
But most of all…depend on God. I realize not everyone reading this shares my faith, but only God is capable of meeting all your needs. Keep your expectations of people realistic and your focus on the One who knows you best and loves you most.