By Leo Babauta
Why do we get angry or frustrated or disappointed in other people in our lives?
Be honest — it happens to all of us, right? Other people can seem rude, frustrating, untrustworthy, inconsiderate, hurtful.
And while there is no excuse for abusive or hurtful behavior, a lot of the time, the real problem isn’t with the other person … it’s with our expectations of the other person.
Our expectations of others often cause our own struggles and frustrations.
So how can we work with these expectations so we can be more at peace, less reactive, and more compassionate with others?
Let’s take a look.
How Our Expectations Screw With Us
We will often blame the other person for our frustration — they’re the ones being difficult, irritating, inconsiderate, crazy, hurtful, stubborn. And there’s often good reason for that.
But consider these ideas:
- The frustration is hurting us, not just them. It might be their “fault,” but we’re the ones who are suffering from the frustrations, irritations, anger.
- We’re often not blameless. OK, sometimes we are, and they are just arses. But not always — and blaming them will often blind us to the behavior we’re doing that might be examined.
- The frustrations are actually caused by our own expectations. We want people to behave differently than they do, and we get frustrated when they don’t act the way we want.
- The expectations are completely manufactured in our own minds. Sure, maybe there are societal expectations that we have adopted, but they’re still in our heads. We can make them, change them, let them go.
- Without the expectations, we could be happy and at peace.
- Without expectations laid on others, we could see the good in others, instead of only how they fall short of our expectations.
Now, it’s important that I say something about abuse or actual harm caused by others — we shouldn’t tolerate that. If someone’s behavior is hurting you in any way, protect yourself. Protect your boundaries. That said, we can protect ourselves without hating the other person. Getting away from the other person and seeing the good in them (as imperfect and screwed up as they might be) are not mutually exclusive.
The bottom line is that our expectations can make us frustrated, closed off, angry. Our expectations cause our suffering. Our expectations close us to compassion for other people.
Working with Our Expectations
If you’re ready to work with your expectations of other people, here are some ways to practice:
- Recognize the pain: Notice the pain of the frustration, anger, hurt, irritation that you’re feeling. You don’t have to get caught up in a narrative about it — just feel the pain. It’s not about dwelling on the pain, but recognizing it, paying a little attention to it.
- Feel compassion for yourself first: Next, you can give yourself compassion. It’s about practicing compassion for yourself first, before you can turn to others with compassion. The practice is to generate a feeling of compassion in your heart (not just compassionate thoughts) … like you would feel compassion for a loved one who is stressed or hurt. This feeling helps you to deal with the pain you’re feeling from unmet expectations.
- See the bigger picture: Once you’ve given yourself compassion, open your mind beyond the small bubble of your self-concern. We live in this bubble most of the time — worrying about ourselves, wanting what we want, not wanting what we don’t want. This is natural, and is not a bad thing. But there is a bigger world beyond this bubble of self-concern. It’s a wider world where you can see the concerns of others, see their pain and unhelpful patterns, see the goodness in others, get a bigger perspective. The practice is to open your mind to this wider perspective, and see the goodness in the other person.
- Pop the bubble of expectations: Just as you get beyond your bubble of self-concern, you can get beyond the bubble of your expectations. Think of the expectations you have of others as an imaginary bubble you’ve created — and pop the bubble! Without the bubble, you are free of the expectations. What is that like? What is the other person like, without your expectations of them?
- Practice compassion for them: Seeing their non-ideal behavior, can you see that the other person is likely acting from a place of pain, fear, or uncertainty? They are probably reacting in a habitual way from this fear and pain. And yes, it’s rude, hurtful, unhelpful. But it’s unhelpful and hurtful to them as well, and they have to live their whole lives like this. See if you can feel compassion for this human being in front of you who is in pain and fear, and stuck in this unhelpful pattern. Without feeling superior to them, or judging them. Just pure compassion for a fellow human being, wishing them an end to their pain and suffering. This is a powerful practice. Note: You can and should still protect yourself, if they’re being hurtful – but while doing that, you can still feel compassion.
- Don’t take anything personally: In his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes that we should never take anything personally — that whatever the other person does is about them. This helps us to see their difficulties, and feel compassion for them, without getting hurt ourselves, without gettin stuck in the personal hell of hating them for it.
“Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.
“Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds…Taking things personally makes you easy prey for these predators, the black magicians. They can hook you easily with one little opinion and feed you whatever poison they want, and because you take it personally, you eat it up.”
~Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
And so working with our expectations … we can see the pain they cause us, and give ourselves some compassion.
We can break free from the bubble of our expectations and self-concern, to see the goodness of the other person, the pain and patterns of the other person, and give them compassion. And then finally, not take things personally, freeing ourselves from a personal hell.
This is a practice, and it is worthwhile.