If you type the word “expectations” into your search bar, the first suggestion that comes up is “expectations versus reality.” The search yields endless memes that attest to the vast discrepancy between what we expect the result of something to be and its actual result.
Many of these memes make use of comical, trivial examples. Yet behind these parodies of the “expectations versus reality” trope, there lies the reality of one of the most fundamental aspects of human emotion and experience: fear of disappointment.
The ubiquity of sayings like “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” and “Remember not to get your hopes up!” not only reveal our fear of disappointment, but also our fear that disappointment is inevitable. We tell ourselves and are told by others that we shouldn’t have high expectations about that job we’re applying for, or that dream we have for the future, or that person we have a crush on, because if we have low expectations, we have a better chance of not being disappointed — of not being hurt.
It makes sense that these sayings exist; Being let down is one of the worst feelings in the world. When you’re looking forward to something or hoping something might turn out in a particular way and it doesn’t, you’re immediately struck by two related sensations: first, disappointment, and second, frustrated regret. “I’m so stupid for letting myself get my hopes up,” you might admonish yourself. “I should have known that it wouldn’t end up the way I was hoping it would.”
Preventing ourselves from getting our hopes up is, at its core, a sort of survival mechanism. To a certain degree, it’s also a necessary aspect of adulthood. As we grow up and gain experience and shed layers of naivete, we learn that we can’t expect everyone we meet to have our best interests at heart, that we can’t expect to succeed at everything we do and that life isn’t like the movies.
Yet I would argue that wielding a safety blanket of low (or lowered) expectations can actually harm us. We should be wary of accepting a below-standard status quo and selling ourselves short, particularly in regard to friendships and romantic relationships.
I’d be willing to bet that, as college students, many of us have received a text a couple of hours before some prearranged plan with a friend: “Sorry, can’t make it — too much work” (or some other fill-in-the-blank excuse). I’d also be willing to bet that, at some point, many of us have been in relationships — both platonic and romantic — where we felt like we put in 80 percent of the effort and the other person put in 20 percent.
Of course, sometimes we really are bogged down with work and have to back out on plans we made earlier. And, of course, part of being a good friend is understanding that things come up and not holding it against the other person. Furthermore, we have different levels of expectations for different people and different types of relationships.
But if we notice that someone is constantly lowering our expectations, constantly letting us down, then we need to address that. If relationships do not meet the threshold level of our expectations, we should be unafraid to break them off — or to ask for a change.
There is a way in which being a college student — being a Penn student — both lets others make excuses and lets us make excuses for others. After all, we’re all busy. We all have things to do.
We cite the omnipresence of pre-professionalism and competition and networking as a reason why we can’t develop deep friendships. We cite the hook-up and party culture as the reason why we can’t find viable partners or form significant romantic relationships. We allow college to lower our expectations about and standards for our relationships so that we won’t be disappointed by them.
But we shouldn’t. We should not feel absurd for expecting our friends or significant others to show up when they said they would. We should not feel out of line for speaking up if we are unhappy with how things are going or how we are being treated. We should not feel ashamed to ask for respect and kindness and thoughtfulness in our relationships — or, indeed, to make our relationships conditional upon these standards.
Maybe this whole article is me having high expectations. Yet how will our expectations ever be met if we aren’t willing to articulate them — if we aren’t willing to stand by them? And, of course, there’s the chance that all along we’ve been conflating “high expectations” and “high standards” with what should be the most basic and fundamental expectations for every relationship.
EMILY HOEVEN is a College senior from Fremont, Calif., studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Growing Pains” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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