Please Note: The ideas contained in this FAQ 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.
Not sure where to start with this article, other than to say it has much to do with difficult emotional experiences due to unrealistic expectations about life. I hope that the article will help others understand how unrealistic expectations play a role in mental health issues like Borderline Personality Disorder. The ideas are drawn from my life experience, clinical experience, consultations with colleagues, education, and wisdom slowly gained from persevering day to day, month to month, year to year, through disorder.
I fully admit to having struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and still to this day, with certain traits. My motivation has always been the same in writing these articles: to help others reduce the suffering associated with BPD. My firm conviction remains that Borderline Personality Disorder happens regularly in very common circumstances…. That being… emotionally sensitive children raised by abusive, unavailable, preoccupied, overly cold, or otherwise ill-suited parents and caregivers; abandonment experiences; inaccurate, semi-accurate, and otherwise unrealistic belief systems established by overdosing on unmediated mainstream media (movies, television, etc.); and finally, living in a culture overly focused on money-making, materialism, economy, escapism and recreational activity, and therefore leaving insufficient time, energy and interest for understanding self and disease processes.
Most of my life has in fact been like an emotional roller coaster ride (the BPD ride?). I now realize that many of the ups and downs of the ride can be linked to faulty expectations… a main ingredient in my suffering, you could say.
Had I understood that my unrealistic expectations were akin to non-negotiable and toxic connections between my thoughts and my feelings, that I was setting myself up for emotional turmoil and ongoing suffering by having unrealistic expectations, and that my behaviours were capable of undermining my achievements and relationships were influenced by this problem, I would have tried to make the corrections sooner. But as you might have guessed, I wasn’t raised in an environment that provided the necessary tools and understanding for taking such responsibility. I was blind to myself.
Unlike so many others, I have been fortunate enough to make many improvements to my condition as I learned what was wrong and acquired skills. Still, it remains a tremendous challenge to each day witness my mind in action and take responsibility… to recognize when I am forcing unreasonable and utopian ideas (inappropriate expectations) upon an imperfect existence. The consequences of my unrealistic mindset, as well as the rigid clinging to that mindset, has always been the same… emotional suffering and reacting followed by more of the same emotional suffering and reacting.
Somewhere along the line, not sure where, I started to believe that life “should” be accommodating to me and fall in line with my demands as I may have them. I started developing expectations about what my efforts “should” produce… If I made some sort of effort or followed some set of rules, then my expectation was that certain things “should” happen for me, period.
For instance, I started believing that if I treated people in a certain way (kindly, patiently, lovingly, accommodatingly) then they “should” treat me back just as I expected or wanted them to. If they didn’t then they were bad people, or I was somehow undeserving. I guess I heard somewhere this was called the “golden rule” and that everyone does it or “should” do it. I bought it. I suppose I heard “the golden idea” a bunch of times somewhere (parents, teachers?). If it seemed like a good rule, then it also made sense to me that everyone would use that rule, ALL THE TIME, or at least they “should”. But I was misled… Everyone is different and comes from a different background and belief system, or maybe they are dealing with something, having an off day or something else, that prevents them from behaving as they normally do, or behaving how I would like them to behave.
Nonetheless, it is apparent that I bought into much of the information that came from people and things influential to me (family, friends, teachers, churches, TV). Istarted believing certain things about my life and how things “should” work. All these people had to do was say the word and I would believe it. I wasn’t naturally critical of information. I assumed they had my best interests in mind, that they wouldn’t lead me astray, and that they had wisdom I could rely on.
I suppose it’s also true that I wanted life to be predictable, understandable, convenient…. easy and without anxiety, if possible. So all I had to do was collect a list of expectations and life becomes easy? Right? Wrong! And so it happened to me as it happens to millions of others everywhere… I absorbed the available ideas and my thoughts started to include a whole lot of “should’s” in them.
The problem with using “shoulds” in thinking, however, is that they DO NOT guarantee that the types of efforts a person makes will produce the types of outcomes he or she expects from the efforts. For example, if I believed that making all the arrangements to have a fancy wedding would result in an experience of “happily ever after” with my partner, then I would be shocked and disappointed to realize that a great deal of ongoing effort is in fact required to work through the stresses and challenges that marriage and family life brings. But you might say… “I deserve to feel good all the time because I struggled and found the love of my life!” This may be an expectation gathered from somewhere (movies maybe?) but obviously, this is out of line with reality, and anyone who has been married for some years would set you straight in a hurry. The notion of “happily ever after” therefore becomes a faulty expectation and it becomes necessary to release it, or otherwise feel disappointed, frustrated, cheated, and maybe even worthless, indefinitely. Goodbye fairy tales? Goodbye fantasy? Goodbye romance novels?
Expectations can also go very wrong in parenting, such as when parents expect their children to comply, be obedient, or acquire knowledge and skills in a way that is faster or more convenient than the children are capable. Many parents believe that their children should just listen to them as desired, perhaps because they are working so hard day to day to provide for their needs. This belief is unrealistic, however, because children naturally experiment with their environments and have an interest in gaining independence and separation as they become their own beings. A child’s biology has nothing to do with how hard a parent works. It is in a child’s biology to grow independent from his caregiver and have his own mind and will.
If the parent did not fully expect the child to show some resistance to rules and requests, then the consequence for the parent might be to take things personally and experience unending or escalating frustration and irritation. On the other hand, expecting resistance as a biological certainty from the child allows for an attitude of acceptance while parenting. For the longest time as a parent, I believed strongly that children were just supposed to listen to and obey their parents as required (“honour thy mother and father?”) but this belief/expectation gives no heed whatsoever to biology… to reality. If I didn’t want to escalate my suffering as a parent, I had to try and let go of this expectation.
No doubt the list of faulty expectations that can infiltrate a person’s mind and everyday life are almost endless. How much unmediated information do we consume… that is, information that isn’t processed, challenged, or discussed? How much? If it was believable and felt good at the time when it was received, then chances are really high that you’ve embraced an idea (or multitude of ideas) that have the potential to induce endless suffering.
Perhaps the more faulty expectations we have collected, the more suffering we will experience. But one thing seems for sure… There is suffering when unrealistic expectations are not compatible with reality, with real facts. And knowing what I know now about Borderline Personality Disorder, I believe it is very true that the unfortunate and unproductive behaviours associated with the disorder come as a result of unmanageable and unknowable suffering in the individual – suffering very often initiated by the presence of unrealistic expectations.
The only way I know to resolve unrealistic expectations, and therefore to become more settled as a human being, is to begin identifying the unrealistic expectations (especially the “shoulds” in our thinking). The next thing to do is to challenge the expectations by examining some facts. For instance, what really happens after you get married? Do people really live “happily ever after”? Is it normal for children to behave differently in certain developmental stages, to resist rules? Do people really think and believe just like I do, or is it more likely that everyone has their own unique perspective? It takes both time and willingness to start down the path of managing expectations.
A possible avenue to reduce getting lost in unrealistic expectations might be to read more books as opposed to watching more television. Useful facts can often be found in good books, whereas TV and movies are more often just looking to sell their story and could care less if your expectations go awry through your consumption. If you can make the time to notice and challenge your expectations, chances are good it will reduce emotional suffering and help you find your way out of disorder.
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