I read a book once that argued resistance is the root of all suffering. Resistance is undoubtedly constructed from expectations. What we should be doing. What life should be like. We torture ourselves with all these imaginary rules.
Expectations are necessary. They are how we begin to understand the world and what we are supposed to do in it. I watch my children as they begin to wrap their young brains around the concept. This is what I should be doing. If I do this, that should happen. We need expectations to guide us.
Yet what happens when these expectations mutate and grow legs? What happens when they swell large enough to block out the sun? What happens when they turn on us?
Take dating, for example. When you fall in love and get married, you expect that to be it. You expect to be done with dating. Then when things fall apart, the expectation is shattered. There was no plan B. There was no backup. There was never supposed to be anything after that.
In the wake, you are forced to start over. You have to build new expectations for what comes next, only these expectations are more desperate. These expectations are damaged and deformed from the implosion. You think you are pulling yourself back together and getting yourself back on track. You don’t see the demons blossoming below your scars.
The expectations start simple, innocuous. You want to be back to where you should be, back to where you were going before everything collapsed. This seems reasonable. You can comfortably devote yourself to this goal.
You don’t notice when the expectations grow legs and begin to wander in their own directions. You don’t see when the goal turns into obsession. The monster whispers in the back of your mind, giving your thoughts a thin and acidic edge, something that burns as they move over your brain.
Every date you go on becomes an opportunity to consummate the expectation, and every time the date is not the one, the failure is crushing. The expectation turns on you, growling and gnashing with sharp teeth at not being sated. Every shortcoming is one step further from the goal, one movement even more deviant from the path. From where you should be.
Without realizing, the itching anxiety spreads through your body. You’re not there. You’re not where you should be. The idea burrows into the lobes of your brain, the nagging sensation of not achieving your expectation. Suddenly, it is infecting your behavior. You are accepting second dates with guys you don’t like. You are explaining away deficiencies. You are trying to force square pegs into round holes, anything to get there.
The expectations have taken over. You have taken these ideas, these goals, these desires and twisted and contorted them. When you stack them together, they make perfect joints to construct a perfect cage. The more bars you slip into your demands, the less you see the light. You become entombed in your own should statements. Until there is no room to breathe.
And how you resist. You are so loyal to your expectations that you buck against reality. You drain all the color from your life around you because it doesn’t match the palette in your dreams. You cannot see anything but what is not. You have manufactured the horror in your own mind, and in reality, by this point, nothing will satisfy the requirement anymore.
We truly are the best at tormenting ourselves. We tie our own ropes the tightest. Our own brains do make the best prisons.
In my book The Rest Will Come, Emma is her own captor, creating her own cell out of failed expectations and obsessive goals. Her life veers off course when her husband cheats on her, and she desperately scrambles to get back to where she thinks she should be. Her expectations of being in a relationship and having a family become consuming and torture her mercilessly.
Emma could not give herself time to recover from her divorce. She could not focus on creating a new life for herself. She could not find herself. She could only desperately chase the idea of what she should have. The pursuit blinded her, crippled her.
More than the horrors of online dating (which were plentiful), it was really the horrors of expectations that drive Emma over the edge. Though her external circumstances are unfortunate and at times upsetting, it is more the way her mind processes them and classifies them as failures against her expectations that drive her crazy. She could have been far less miserable if she could only release the idea of where she should have been.
We could all benefit from lower expectations. Not lower goals, not lower ambitions, only lower expectations. Less ideas of should. Without such pressure, maybe Emma would have never turned to serial murder to cope with the failures and horrors of online dating. But I’m happy she didn’t.
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