Managing People’s Expectations

Managing people’s expectations involves taking inventory of what they want for you and behaving in a way that prevents them from judging you negatively. This type of self-erasure doesn’t necessarily involve actually conforming to people’s expectations. It does involve maintaining the appearance of having done so to their faces. The standard nomenclature in our culture for this kind of behavior is called “people pleasing”. It’s a challenge that plagues anyone who is gregarious but has problems asserting themselves.

This challenge dogs a lot of the people I have worked with over the years. Our culture has a funny relationship to expectations. People don’t know what to do with them. Rather than see them as interesting trail markers to consider, they become impositions.

The basic solution to people-pleasing is to learn to think for yourself and assert your autonomous point of view. Learning to think for yourself involves reflecting on your experience of life and deciding how this information will allow you to gain more meaning for yourself. Asserting your autonomous point of view involves working through discomfort and pain, learning the principles of interpersonal communication, and understanding boundaries so that you neither bowl another person over nor allow yourself to be bowled over.
Asserting yourself is a learned skill, a muscle. Its opposite would be people pleasing or isolation and neglect.

Millions of people learn to think for themselves to one degree or another. They choose people to look up to and learn from. People who have the challenge of people-pleasing set about to try manage the expectations of the person they’ve fixated on. That person becomes a parent figure to them. They strive and strive to leave a good impression with this person. They leave out certain, unsavory details. They leave out the quiet moments of shame and ugliness that would threaten their ability to remain in good standing, according to this person’s expectations.

I see this as too much work, it’s too inefficient. It’s the child’s response to a parent’s god-like status, early in childhood. It is uncomfortable but tremendously important to learn how to be genuine, to accept one’s own flaws and incorporate them in a kind of holding pattern with the rest of their presentation while continuing to improve. Fixating on some important person you perceive and living in a stranglehold manner, wed to their expectations, is such a prison! Even to really healthy people. People are too eager to have their demi-gods, to worship this public figure or that public figure. People are not yet eager enough to view influential people as useful and interesting but ultimately separate and self-contained.

I make it a practice to admit my shameful, ugly, or tepid moments to myself in a journal I keep. I need to know of my less-than-savory parts so that I can maintain my own expectations for excellence, rather than endlessly seek to conform to the expectations of others. Obviously, it’s useful to bounce our difficulties off other people to garner feedback. It’s when we leave out the details of how we’re simply human, flaws and all, that we begin to manage people’s expectations of us. We become perfect…and boring!

I have spoken about all of this through the lens of personal relationships. There are whole industries and fields based on managing the expectations of others. This often happens between politicians, in the fields of fashion and entertainment, and in a lot of corporate hierarchy situations. It’s not necessarily wrong in all instances to manage the expectations of another person. Sometimes they may be a legitimately closed off or even abusive person that we have to deal with for a period of time. Sometimes we are trying to punch through some measure of good through a closing window of opportunity. There are many other such examples. People pleasing can be a downright useful skill!

However, in our personal relationships we can drop a lot of the pretenses, tensions, and tendency to revert into unconscious-childhood mode.

Particularly in America and especially in a country that had freedom of association, we are free to express ourselves without reasonable expectations of being punished simply for being honest.