My 24-year-old niece is already off to a great start with her career, but she’s wrestling with uncertainty. Although she recently landed an impressive job, the schedule is grueling. Plus, despite working so hard to get through school, she still can’t seem to find financial freedom, much less the time to pursue a relationship. Essentially, her reality doesn’t quite match what she thought it would be.
Expectations silently swirl around most of life’s roads. They are birthed when we’re young, and they grow along with us. They can come from parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, society and ourselves. They’re fertilized by words with the suffix “-er,” like “better,” “faster,” “smarter,” and they’re hard to avoid.
Expectations fueled by comparison — one of life’s sneaky joy-stealers — threaten contentment. But rather than let those comparison fires rage, let’s grab the hose and start dousing the flames with four truths.
1. You’re not alone.
Expectation mismatch is a phenomenon every person deals with. Though labels change at different life stages (mine center on things like parenting, writing and fitness), the pressures are the same, and they do the same thing they did to us in middle school: breed insecurity.
Former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino recently outed her own struggles. She said, “[A]t 25, I was racked with anxiety, filled with fear, and totally confused about what I was going to do with my life. I felt like everything I’d visualized for my early adulthood wasn’t coming true, even though I had an enviable career path, good friends, no debt and a supportive church group.“
Like I said, you’re not alone. We’re in this together.
2. It’s not real.
Expectations are thoughts and ideas that shift according to societal standards — not reality. But they’re powerful and often bring with them stress and fear.
I’m reminded of Beatrice Prior, the heroine in Divergent. In a dream-induced state, Beatrice finds herself fighting for her life in a glass box filling with water but with no way out. She begins to give into the fear of suffocation until she remembers that it’s not real. It’s a dream-state, not reality. So she gently taps her finger on the inch-thick glass box and it shatters.
The pressures of the world are like the water rising in that glass box. They ebb and flow, shifting with the winds of the day. Today it’s a job title. Tomorrow it could be a home or marriage or kids. Yesterday it was a homecoming date or a school acceptance letter. The pressures of yesterday don’t carry the weight today that they did in the moment, just like today’s pressures will seem insignificant when tomorrow’s stress captivates our thoughts. Don’t let the pressure of comparison and expectation create a false reality for you.
3. Pictures fade. People remain.
Social media highlight reels, with all their explicit and implied achievement/inclusion/coolness, overshadow everyone’s reality — even when the posted pics are our own. But pictures fade; people remain.
The person next to us at Starbucks, on the train, at the park, in the airport or in the grocery store line is faced with the same photo montages and magazine covers. Walking the road alongside someone, rather than competing against them, can give nourishment to a starving soul whose reality also doesn’t look like posted pictures.
4. Don’t take the bait.
Expectation and comparison lure us to anchor our thoughts on ourselves, but self-centeredness is a lifeless place. So, rather than take that bait, force a look around. Consider all the unique, God-given, individually endowed giftedness in ourselves and those around us.
A friend of mine signs her email, “Humbly yours,” and then her name. Then she adds this: “A humble person is one whose status compared to others [or to expectations] doesn’t matter to him because his value in God’s eyes is a settled issue.”
Yeah, what she said.
Editor’s note: Kay Wyma is the featured guest today on Focus on the Family. Check it out.
Kay Wyma, a former White House staff member, is a full-time mother of five. Her latest book is I’m Happy for You (Sort of, Not Really): Finding Contentment in a Culture of Comparison. Get it now for a gift of any amount. To find out more about Kay, go to TheMoatBlog.com.