We are not far enough out of the pandemic to see all the effects it will have on our bodies, minds, and spirits.
But collectively, we know we are tired.
We know we struggle with doing what was done before at the same rate and intensity.
After having traveled through a global traumatic event together, that makes sense.
After experiencing intense anxiety, overwhelm, and/or trauma, overloaded nervous systems will have more difficulty with executive functioning tasks (planning, organizing, task initiation, emotion regulation, focus, etc) and memory.
Expecting ourselves and others to do things in the same way we did prior to 2020 does not make sense on a neurobiological level.
While the world may be settling back into some kind of normal, our nervous systems may take longer to heal.
On the other hand, expectations are important. They are important because they create boundaries and structure. They make room for the identification of stepping stones toward goal achievement and positive outcomes.
When expectations are appropriately high, they even give us the idea that we are capable of achieving them, impacting how we feel about ourselves and our capabilities. Expectations and boundaries help us feel safe—and it doesn’t take a professional to see that a sense of safety is necessary for healing.
So what do we do with expectations while we are in this state of the outside world bustling back while our inner selves are still frayed?
We mind the gap.
Psychologist Mona Delahooke talks about the “expectation gap,” a term she uses especially related to parents’ expectations of children. She mentions that parents often expect children to regulate in ways they are not yet capable of doing. The gap between an individual child’s developmental capability and the expectations they are held to is the “expectation gap.”
It’s worth considering how expectation gaps impact not only children, but every single last one of us.
For many of us, the pandemic depleted our reservoirs of energy. Assisting our children with remote learning while working from home (or having to scramble for childcare AND assist our children with remote learning when our jobs required us to be in person), managing the toxic effects of culture wars that have been amplified by the stress of the pandemic, managing job loss or other economic challenges, supporting our children through a global pandemic, managing a world where to many, each choice suddenly seemed to take on moral value…we are collectively stressed out, exhausted, and running on fumes.
Our children have navigated many disruptions to their short lives, with multiple changes at school and stressed-out adults. Many older children/adolescents are anxious and concerned about whether they have a future. That kind of stress lowers a person’s ability to perform and tolerate overwhelm.
The expectations we have may seem reasonable on the surface, but our current ability to meet them may need some bridging…and some grace.
One way to do this is to reframe how we think about expectations.
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we often challenge words like “should” or “must.” When we hold ourselves or others to unyielding standards, we are bound to suffer shame or resentment when we or others don’t live up to these standards. But what are we really saying when we say “I should be able to ____________” or “so-and-so ought to __________?” When we get down to it, we are often misrepresenting our desires as standards.
What if, instead of staying what we “must” do, we reframed this as what we would like to see ourselves or others do? We want to be able to do the thing. We’d really like it if others were able to complete certain tasks. Doing so creates space for grace, communication, and goal-setting, instead of resentment and shame.
It allows for failure and resilience.
It allows us to take reasonable steps towards our goal and meet an expectation, rather than expecting ourselves to already be there.
Turning our expectations into reasonable goals or desires that we can communicate towards others is something we can do for ourselves, our partners, our kids, our kids’ teachers, our colleagues, our neighbors, the grocery store clerk, the customer service agent, and anyone else we encounter in our lives. When we communicate what we want or need to others, it allows us to collaborate on a reasonable path forward. When we establish goals for ourselves, it allows us to explore obstacles to meeting these goals and problem-solve these.
In short, in minding the gap between our expectations and capacities and reframing our own expectations as desires, we are allowing ourselves and others grace while still plotting a pathway forward.
Contributed By Katrina Swenson