Please Note: The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and are communicated without reference to supporting documentation in most cases. Other inspiration and influence for the writing came through consultation with other mental health professionals but the writer “Peter Quintano” is also fully qualified in DBT making him qualified to talk about the things discussed in this article.
Today we will talk about how to effectively lower expectations. It is one thing to simply say that expectations need to be adjusted (typically lowered) in order for a person to function better in the most challenging areas of life, but it is a very different thing to have the tools and ability to adjust/lower expectations. For this reason, I will let you in on a little practice that has worked for me to accept people as they are, no matter how much I might want these people to be someone (or something) they are not.
Even for people who do not suffer from BPD, it is still a very common issue to have problems with maintaining unrealistically high expectations. For nearly every aspect of life, there can exist common assumptions about how people “should be” and how things “should work.” For instance, even though nearly every human is flawed in various ways and it is natural for many endeavours to be difficult, people nonetheless believe that other people “should be” easy to get along with and that challenging activities “shouldn’t be” too challenging. I believe all this “shoulding” may be a side-effect of living in modern culture and daily interfacing with modern media/technology/marketing, and thus being led to assume a level of entitlement, privilege, and convenience. Then, when the reality of life does not automatically remain parallel with all the gathered assumptions, the frustration (plus many other uncomfortable emotions) becomes all-consuming.
The main difference for people suffering from BPD is that adjusting expectations to be lower (and thus more in line with reality) is extra difficult because the emotional experiences of life are much more intense. In other words, when emotions are naturally intense because of things like genetics, it is extra difficult to start making thinking adjustments, and likewise, to actually succeed in getting “unstuck” from unhelpful thinking patterns. Keeping expectations unrealistically high, in fact, becomes an exceptionally painful dilemma for people with BPD, and the further apart expectations and reality are from each other, the more painful the experience becomes. Many other behavioural and relational problems can then stem from the pain of unrealistic expectations. All that being said, lowering expectations can be accomplished no matter what your genetic code is, and this means that the unnecessary suffering and drama of BPD can be lowered as well.
An interesting side-note before proceeding further is that, in some situations, it can be very easy for people to manage expectations. For instance, if we see a person who has lost a leg, we would never raise our expectations to the point of presuming he could kick a field goal in the NFL (at least not without some fancy prosthetic and loads of training). Another example might be that we would never expect a person who is trained in mechanics to suddenly become a talented musician or painter. When the facts don’t support expecting a certain type of outcome it can be very easy to “get real,” although in human relationships this ability can be easily lost.
So without any further delay, I will explain the strategy that I use to help myself radically accept people are the way they are…
You may both laugh or cry at the simplicity of the strategy, but the crying part may have more to do with the implications of using the strategy rather than the intended effect. In other words, while the strategy is very simple and straightforward, and also works brilliantly to reduce internal tension, it does come with a consequence that may be unexpected (and unwanted) but perfectly reasonable. This consequence will be explained near the end of the article.
The first thing I do with the strategy is to consider my long-term experiences with the person I am having a hard time with. As I do this, I try to gather a few highly descriptive (non-derogatory) words that align with the repeating habits and traits of the person in question. For instance, after long periods of time being around a person and observing his repeating habit of being late for appointments, it would make sense to apply the label “tardy” to that person. The person in question IS tardy. The person IS NOT punctual. The person IS tardy. To insist that the person “should” be punctual would be akin to refusing to accept reality as it is (fighting reality) and maintaining unrealistic expectations.
Another example, and one that can be particularly relevant and challenging for persons suffering from BPD, is when a significant other isn’t good at listening and understanding. One of the most helpful offerings that anyone living with BPD can receive from significant others is to be genuinely understood on the emotional level (otherwise known as emotional validation). It is helpful because it works well to regulate intense emotions, and this is something that persons with BPD are working on everyday. Unfortunately, however, validation is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to many and also isn’t a skill that is emphasized in modern society as being necessary and important to acquire.
Now to elaborate, if a significant other has a long-term automatic tendency of invalidating the emotions of others (e.g., responding to natural emotional expressions with something like “don’t feel that way, it’s dumb and it doesn’t make any sense”), it will most likely remain as a response style and happen again and again anytime emotional support is requested. In cases like these, it makes sense for the person with BPD (or anybody, for that matter) to apply the label “emotionally unavailable” or “emotionally unskilled” to the person in question. The person in question IS emotionally unavailable and unskilled. The person IS NOT emotionally available and skilled. To insist otherwise (to be demanding, or use “shoulds”) would be… unrealistic, and painful.
After applying these appropriate and fitting labels to individuals we are trying to accept, it becomes noticeably less emotionally painful to be in their presence. And by the way, the application of these appropriate and fitting labels is done internally rather than out loud. The point of this practice is not to initiate conflict and get people defensive, but rather to align oneself more with reality so as to experience less emotional disruption and other unnecessary drama. Therefore, every time you are in the presence of the person you need to accept as they are, your task is to apply the appropriate and fitting labels.
The consequence I mentioned I would get to explain at the end of the article is that accepting people as they are a means of giving up on relationship ideals. In other words, it means accepting that you are not going to have the ideal relationship, nor everything that you ever wanted in a relationship. Unless there is evidence that the person in question is actively working on adjusting parts of herself (e.g., attending her own therapy, etc.), then the repeating traits will remain as they are, and as they always have been. You have what you have and that is that, and it has nothing to do with you personally. Of course, you could always leave the person you are trying to accept, although that decision may not be in your best general interest, and the next relationship could easily come with something less than ideal as well.
Using this acceptance strategy may require using other learned skills to work through feelings of sadness or disappointment, although this effort is better than continually fighting reality, getting stuck on “shoulds,” and finding yourself in endless emotional suffering and conflict. The ongoing goal in mastering BPD is to manage emotions better and better, and likewise, to function more effectively and more wisely than in the past. Taking steps to make the emotional load more manageable by using acceptance strategies as necessary works very well for moving towards this goal.
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