TLDR: It is not uncommon to start any connections/interactions with exchanging expectations, the transactional nature in mind. Have we stopped and asked ourselves, is that helpful in living fulfilling enriching relationships?
“You have changed” – this ran through my mind when my then-boyfriend told me he preferred to spend the weekend apart from each other after long busy weeks at work when we had plans to meet. Little did I know that it marks the beginning of my conscious contemplation of what a ‘life partnership’ constitutes.
Long story short, we spent the final moments of our ‘relationship’ trying to point fingers at each other and wanting to change the other person into the ideal image in our mind.
I was exhausted and felt I have turned into this ugly person (not figuratively, of course 😊) and called it off.
Having been immersed in personal development themes for some time now, I took the subsequent weeks and months to reflect and review. “What was that experience trying to teach me?”, “What have I learnt from it and how will I respond in a more helpful way for the relationship in future?” – these questions were coming up, nudging me to honestly find answers within.
Life Keeps Sending You Messages…Are You Receiving Them?
It is true, life will keep sending the same lessons in one form or another if we did not fully understand the whole message the first time around. Deeper reflection surfaced to me that I was holding onto certain expectations strongly.
The idea that my boyfriend should be caring, consistent with his words and actions, generous – written in ‘the list’ (no joke, I did have a list of 10 qualities of a life partner!).
On the surface, it might seem reasonable to have expectations for someone I consider spending the rest of my life with (or however long it turns out to be). Many relationship experts even encourage both parties to clarify expectations early and regularly to avoid future misalignment or disappointment.
While I am not speaking against these experts, I have now taken another angle to this topic.
Reviewing my experience to date, I realise I have adopted my parents and society’s view that I need to have the career, the spouse and the child(ren) to be considered successful in life (whatnot with my mom’s regular comment of “You are my only worry now, that your brothers have their own families”).
There were rebel days when I challenged my mom with “Is my life purpose only to get married and have children then?” which she had no ready and convincing answer to.
Ticking The Boxes Of Society
Sure, many are happy with ticking these boxes and it is not the intention to reduce those ‘accomplishments’ and make them any less. I too would find joy in simple family life, at the same time I have the inkling there is more to life than just ticking the boxes.
I restarted contemplation practice in silence, coinciding with the Circuit Breaker period which gave much-needed space for such retrospection.
Various thoughts and feelings arose; from questioning my worth as an individual, to swinging moods of wanting to take back my decision – all are valid experiences, though might not be the truth.
I dutifully journal the thoughts that arise during those sessions and find myself acquainted with a friend who nudges me to review my beliefs and expectations on everything. This included the impermanent nature of life, personal relationship expectations.
And the journey begins.. more questions surface “Who’s to say life has to be lived only this way?”, “How can I be sure that my expectations are reasonable?”, “Where have I picked up these beliefs, do I truly believe them?”. With more contemplation, the questions get deeper and more challenging. And I face them one after another as there isn’t much to lose.
Monologues And Realisations
The first realisation arises: this person is not my boyfriend, he is a person of his own – with his habits, preferences and nature of mind. I cannot dictate how he should behave to my liking and not to my disliking.
It was my strong grasping of an image of how he should be that contributed to the arguments and blames. It was almost like I had these monologues in my mind during our interactions – “You do this, that’s why I love you”, “You are like that, and I dislike that part of you”. Although it is part of human experience to have preferences, it does not mean these preferences are the be-all and end-all.
It is okay to have them, it is even more important to be aware of them as they are, preferences – which is also changeable.
The outside world serves as a mirror to me, reflecting the part that I value and dislike of myself. Being clear on my values serves as the lighthouse for life’s journey, though it is not my position to demand that others align to them.
In the case they do have similar values, we might have a great time together! Otherwise, it is an opportunity for me to expand my worldview or even practice being kind to others who are different from me. At the end of the day, there is no need to see me and others as opponents in a battle.
Wanting to be with someone with qualities in the list is probably not as within my control as being someone with those qualities.
And if I need to ask for someone to be a decent human being (there might be judgment here too), he/she is probably not someone whom I want to associate with, at least not for long.
Even more, wanting someone to be a certain way so that I feel pleasure or ‘happy’ is fleeting – like trying to draw on the sandy beach, it will be wiped out by each splash of waves.
That pleasure and happiness will change when (not if) the person changes for whatever reason. As we learn, the nature of life is ever-changing – the impermanence lesson which we are trying to truly understand.
Of course, I have not decoded the mystery of relationships and dare not claim to know even a tiny bit of it. This is my learning so far, and I have felt more peace today with what is than ever before. Who knows, life might consider me receiving the message now and send me another lesson to learn 😊
Understand the difference between grasping on expectations and practising our life values
Embodying values within ourselves, rather than demanding the qualities from others, will bring about a more peaceful state of mind
Whenever there is an inclination to place a source of pleasure on something or someone, pause and ask “is this right action based on right view?”
TLDR: We are constantly being acted on by people and our environment via sense contact to develop relationships. But our relationship with others grows in maturity only when we learn to have a good relationship with ourselves.
All of us have relationships. The instant we are born, we have relationships with our parents. When we grow up, we learn about friendships and later romantic love, and marriage. Although it seems like relationships are between two or more people, our relationship with others is actually a relationship with ourselves
How Our Reactions Are Triggered
Think of yourself having a stroll in a quiet park. Suddenly, someone cycles past you from behind with his speakers blaring loud music. What would your response be? You may feel annoyed with someone breaking the beautiful silent walk and turn to see who that perpetrator is. Or you may turn around just to know who is playing the loud music. What triggered the response?
Our senses are always picking up on sense vibrations in our environment. In the case of hearing loud music, the ear has come into contact with sound vibrations. When we see objects, it is the vibration of light that has contacted the eye sense. If you go to a concert, you may find that even your body can feel vibrations of sounds.
It is from the vibrations of others’ voice, tone and facial expressions that we react and respond. We ourselves produce vibrations that affect others.
In this way, we are always being acted on by people and our environment through the senses. When the wind blows and the thunder roars, we can also feel the vibration throughout our bodies. It may cause us to wear a jacket to protect against the cold or hide under our blanket. Thus, we also form a relationship with our environment through vibrations.
Our Reactions Based On Expectations
Most of us feel justified that our reactions are dependent on another person’s behaviour. If the other person is polite, we will be polite, if the other person is rude we will be rude. But haven’t you experienced that despite your warmth and courtesy, some relatives or even acquaintances remain cold and aloof?
Encounters with rude people when we are polite more often than not brings up a negative reaction from us. Since we hold expectations of how people should behave, we therefore react.
The kind of reaction we give also depends on our level of maturity. At a certain age or stage in life, we might just move on and ignore an impolite person. But if this difficult person is someone whom you live with at home, it is harder to ignore.
Relationships At Home
We cannot avoid facing our expectations of what people should be like in order to have a good relationship, especially with those we live with at home.
We expect our parents to be a certain way – perhaps we wish they are less angry, less nosy or more independent. We may also wish that our siblings could be warmer or less selfish. Where do we get these expectations from? We could have gotten them from being exposed to various forms of media to observing what others have that we do not have.
Relationships at home could be suffering or heavenly. If it is heavenly in the sense that everyone is equally caring and sharing, we may not attempt to look deeply into the relationship. But not many relationships are perfect. In the case of frictions, one may notice that when one backs off in a conflict, the altercation ends. I am speaking of normal conflicts at home, not abusive ones which require professional help. In fact, if one is in an abusive relationship, it is important to protect oneself by asking for relevant help.
However, when one backs down in a conflict, one may feel unjustified. For example, parents can feel justified speaking over their children with authority. The children, on the other hand, feel justified in saying they are right because their parents’ have an outdated view of the world.
How We Affect Those Around Us
Since we are always acted on by outer vibrations from others and our surroundings, we are as capable of acting upon others. Unfortunately, in most conflicts, people do not see the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings where he said that hate is never appeased by hate; hate is only appeased by love; this is an eternal law. The Buddha was speaking about a universal law that is inexhaustible. Most of us are aware of human laws but not universal laws, so we don’t experiment with it.
Imagine yourself yelling at someone with anger. How would your response be if that person keeps silent and agrees with you? This person then returns when you are sufficiently calmed to apologise and iron out your disagreements peacefully. How would you feel? Would anger continue to seeth within you?
Deep unresolved conflicts within the family can cause disharmony within an individual, who then brings his/her unhappiness to school or the workplace.
Unresolved strife developed in the family can also cause an individual to lead a company or society to a path of conflict if s/he becomes a leader in later life.
Conflicts do not only exist on the outside but from within. When we have thoughts of ill will such as anxiety or fear, do we appease it with love and forgiveness or more hate – such as hating ourselves for being a coward or not being able to do better? Besides having relationships with others, the key relationship in our lives is actually our relationship with our thoughts. Conflicting thoughts could be developed through reaction to unhappy family life in childhood.
Having A Good Relationship With Yourself Influences Others
The good thing about friction with others is that it makes some of us look deeper within ourselves. We may start asking if we are hateful that others are mean to us? Or we may wonder if it is due to fate that we aren’t well respected by others. Or we could feel that people are mean and that the world is a dangerous place.
When we look deeper we may discover that the other person acting on us with anger or disrespect is also suffering.
We may discover that the unhappiness in the other has nothing to do with us but everything to do with themselves. Why would a happy and contented person behave rudely or selfishly if s/he knew how to make themselves happy? With this discovery, we may learn to be more forgiving towards others and to show more care, or to just let it be and not deepen potential conflicts.
If we look even deeper, we may find that our understanding of how to be peaceful with ourselves determines our relationship with others.
If we aren’t content or peaceful, it is hard for us to behave in a relaxed and tranquil way with others. When the conflict in ourselves is attenuated, the burden within gets lifted little by little and we become happier and instead influence others with our tranquillity.
Find out if it is true that you are constantly acted upon by outer conditions through observation. When you are out walking during a hot day, do you react to the heat with thoughts? When your boss is talking to your teammate, do you start wondering what they are talking about without your knowledge?
What do you do when you notice critical thoughts about yourself arising in your mind? Do you act upon it with more criticism or with forgiveness?
Take the opportunity to test the Buddha’s teachings on hate is never appeased by hate but only by love. When someone brings his or her suffering onto you, try to respond with love and see what happens.
TLDR: Set your boundaries, learn how to self regulate, and listen with openness
Does family = sacrifice?
Being born in a typical Asian family, I have always been expected to excel in everything that I do. Honestly, as long as what my parents expect of me is reasonable, I do not really mind that. I know that they have done so much for me and doing well in life is just one way I can repay them. Besides, having them push me forward will help me grow as a person.
The problem is what happens if what they expect of me is way too demanding and I fail to achieve those goals that they have set for me. They will be so upset and disappointed in me. Being a generally filial daughter, I do not want that to happen. I love them and I want them to be happy.
However, the continuous chasing after those ambitions can sometimes be suffocating, that it jeopardises my wellbeing. The questions then, does familial love really have to be sacrificial? Can we not find a middle ground where we both can be happy?
The answer is of course we can. I have been to two extremes from rebelling against their words to following everything that they want. As you might have guessed, both methods did not work. I did not feel happy doing them. The Buddha taught the Middle Way and we can use the concept to balance parental expectations and what we want in life.
Tips for juggling with parental expectations:
(disclaimer: these are what work for me. If you find that any of the tips below do not apply to you, you may choose to ignore it.)
1. Build a relationship with your parents that is based on open communication
Communication is key in any relationship. If you want to build a harmonious relationship with them, make sure you spend time with them. Having time together allows you to understand one another on a deeper level which makes communication easier. In that way, you know what kind of attitude and tone to adopt when discussing your concerns with them.
For example, if your parents expect you to take an engineering course in the university, but you know that your passion is not that and you will dread your decision if you simply follow what they want you to do, then, talk to them in a way that you both can reach a conclusion.
While you acknowledge their concerns (e.g. stable career), you explain to them why engineering is not suitable for you and why choosing another course of your choice will be better in a long run (e.g fulfilling career). I am sure that if you talk to them logically with realistic reasoning, they will eventually understand you.
Also, when explaining our concerns, we can practise the five factors of right speech taught by the Buddha (AN 5.198). The five factors are that a statement must be spoken at the right time, spoken in truth, spoken gently, spoken beneficially, and out of goodwill.
It is also important to understand that communication is a two-way process. Just like you, your parents also want their opinions to be heard. A lot of conflicts arise not because we think that we are right and the other person is wrong, or vice versa, but because we feel that we do not get the respect that we deserve. Hence, it is important to practise effective listening if we want communication to occur smoothly.
2. Set your boundaries
It is important to understand that you are not an extension of your parents’ ambition.
As much as you want to pay back your parents’ kindness, you need to understand that you are not perfect.
There are times when you fail and that is alright. In fact, it is great that you experience failure. In that way, you know where you are lacking and where you can improve on. You do not need to feel guilty for not achieving something. Be kind to yourself and thank yourself for doing the best you can.
Also, instead of always asking what your parents want you to do, start asking what you really want to do. Because you are the pilot of your own life, not your parents. There is a difference between repaying your parents and living all your life for your parents. Understanding that, you will not be stuck with the oppressive feeling of guilt for not living up to your parents’ expectations.
3. RELAX (breathe in, breathe out, repeat)
I know that it is not easy and extremely unnatural to be relaxed when you are expected to be the best all the time, outdoing everyone else. However, being tense will only result in you underperforming because instead of focusing on what you need to do, you pay attention to your negative emotions. Then, you feel guilty for being negative which makes you even more negative and this vicious cycle continues.
The thing is, my dear friends, when you are relaxed, you can face problems with a clearer state of mind. With a clear state of mind, you can better understand your parents and why they expect certain things from you. When you are calmer, you can also perform to your fullest potential, thereby achieving your goals and meeting your parents’ expectations.
A few ways to relax are:
a. Practising mindfulness through meditation.
There are many benefits of meditation including feeling less stressed as your stress hormone, cortisol, decreases. When you are not as stressed and anxious, the condition becomes more conducive for you to relax. One mobile app that I use to keep my meditation practice in check is insight timer. There are many guided meditations if you are new to meditation 🙂 You may consider using it too!
b. Changing your perspective.
Rather than expecting tasks to be accomplished to see tasks as adventures to experience. Inducing some form of fun can also help you to calm down.
Jotting down your emotions in a form of journal, music, or poetry. Externalisation of your emotion can uplift your mood and alleviate your emotional burden.
In conclusion, I believe that when parents expect something from us, it is usually out of goodwill. It is just that when they fail to see things from our perspectives, their expectations become overwhelmingly unrealistic and difficult to achieve.
Know that you are not alone in this and a lot of us experience the same thing. I hope that this short sharing can be of some help to you and I hope that you can better juggle with your parents’ and your own expectations. Jia you!
Find a routine that increases your mindfulness and centres you
Practise holding multiple perspectives, you do not have all the right answers