I confess: I am guilty of making assumptions based on my own personal standards and life experiences. In fact, I think that most of us are. But I arrived at a turning point last year, when I had this epiphany that the constant shock I felt when people in my life behaved “badly” was based on this arbitrary idea that everyone should act and behave just like I would.
I’d mistakenly made the assumption that we’re all living in the same reality (that is, my reality) and of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth! The problem with this attitude, aside from the fact that it’s incredibly self-centered, is that it set me up for major disappointment. It also made me a victim to my own circumstances. Every little slight, unreturned phone call, or backhanded remark felt like a slap in the face, even when it wasn’t meant to be. There was a sense of being “done to,” because I had projected the same expectations I had for myself onto others.
Here’s something I’ve learned in the last few years: Not everything is about me. And when I forget that everyone is operating from their own belief systems and individual truths, I really end up doing a number on my own self-esteem and happiness.
So now, I no longer set myself up for disappointment by believing that people will be just like me—or even that they should. Everyone has their own limitations and realities, which impact their perspective, and I’ve learned to manage my own assumptions and expectations accordingly. Here are some tips on how you can do the same:
- Get clear about your boundaries. Disappointment sucks, and at times, our feelings of being let down are totally justifiable. But before you start pointing fingers, get clear about your boundaries and make explicit agreements with the people you love. What are your standards? Your hard no’s? What behavior will you simply not put up with? This isn’t about throwing a book of rules at the people in your life, but about getting super honest and vulnerable, and opening up a discussion with those you care about. When you walk around with unspoken expectations, you can get burned. So speak up! Maybe you have a friend who expects you to be there for her all the time, but neglects you as soon as she gets into a new relationship. Instead of letting it slide, be real with her. What’s more, encourage other people to state their needs with clarity and respect.
- Don’t assume that everyone lives in your reality. It’s easy to get smug and superior, and to push our own ideas of what’s what onto other people. Try to give others the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you’re irked when someone is a couple minutes late, but the way they flow with time invites more flexibility and openness. If you’re curious or need clarity, talk about it! It’s possible that, together, you’ll come to a completely new realization of how you can best navigate those differences.
- When someone tells you who they are, believe them. It’s one thing to accept the perceived shortcomings of your loved ones, and another to excuse behavior that is harmful or negligent. If you have a partner who refuses to commit even though you’ve told him time and again that you’re ready to go all in, or a friend who continues to bail on you in times of extreme need, reevaluate your priorities. People’s actions speak louder than words. Get skilled at recognizing what they are telling you, verbally or otherwise, and not simply filling in the blanks with your wishes and expectations, or your insistence that they change. Be willing to call a spade a spade, no matter how much it hurts. Most of all, be willing to let go with love. After all, if you really are living in two irreconcilable versions of reality, it’s not ultimately going to work.
- Meet people where they are. Sometimes tolerance is a virtue when it comes to deciding who we’re going to keep in our lives. I once read that love is all about clearly seeing who a person is and treating them accordingly. As communicative as we might be about our needs, some people (even the ones we love) will never be able to meet them. For example, perhaps you’ve told that flakey friend that you need more reliability, and all you get is empty apologies and broken promises. If you decide that everything else about the relationship is worth it, maybe you simply have to accept that this is all they can give and stop demanding more. Different people meet different needs, and recognizing this will spare you future headaches and heartaches.
- Bring it back to #1. Ultimately, you can only control your own actions. Whether you decide to work it out with the people you love or move on, clearly engaging your own values ultimately helps you find ways to meet your own needs rather than depending on others to do so. This way, disappointments don’t end up crippling you. You learn to find resolution in your life on your own terms, with or without others.
Becoming aware of my assumptions and managing my expectations has helped me so much; I no longer beat myself up when things go “wrong.” I don’t ask myself what I could have done better or how I can “fix” the situation at hand. Instead, I treat myself and others with compassion. And when I find myself getting judgey, I stop, check my assumptions, get a handle on the bigger picture (that is, my reality isn’t the only one), and realize that everyone is doing the best they can.
It’s good to exercise humility here; just like all of us, you are going to fuck up and disappoint others. And sometimes, you will hurt others even when you’ve exercised the utmost caution. This is why it’s also crucial to give yourself a break and free yourself from the need to meet everyone else’s expectations. But when you do your best to communicate with clarity, honesty, and integrity every step of the way, it will impact your life for the better. It will give you the kind of reality check that opens you up to better connections—to others and, most importantly, to yourself.