Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
It’s only human nature to have high expectations for how we want our lives to unfold. But life has a way of getting in the way. Being diagnosed with a chronic condition, for example.
A question for you: Have you taken a look at your expectations lately?
Adjusting your expectations
My clients often talk to me about how, because of their health challenges, their lives aren’t measuring up to their expectations. They feel let down by others, like they’re not getting enough of what they need. They feel they are letting others down by not being able to give enough. Or they feel they have let themselves down by not doing enough.
Sure, it’s only human to have expectations of yourself and how others should feel or act toward you. Especially people who are close to you, friends and family, or the healthcare professionals you work with.
One of the most frustrating things about living with a chronic condition is adjusting to the constant challenges to maintain your own self care, and the new responsibilities that go along with that—none of which you asked for—along with the need to rely more on others to do their part. Can’t everybody just do their job? Including me!
Don't expect perfection
Here’s what I’ve learned from my clients, as well as in my own experience with friends and family dealing with chronic conditions: expecting 100 percent can be a set up for a letdown.
Behind the science and technology of healthcare are humans. And humans aren’t perfect. Healthcare professionals aren’t always so responsive. Delays are going to happen, along with the restrictions and inconveniences of managed care.
And then there are family members, who aren’t always so supportive, because they aren’t able to or don’t know how to, or just won’t.
And you’re human too. With good days and bad days, good intentions, and your own limitations.
So, given that we are dealing with imperfect beings, what if, instead of expecting perfection, you expected imperfection? What if you started to ask yourself what parts of your life need to be functioning at 100 percent, and where you might begin to loosen up on your expectations? Averaging out your expectations to, let’s say, around 80 percent? This would mean allowing for the human factor in yourself and others. It might also mean a whole lot less disappointment. Not to mention a whole lot less stress.
Tips to try the "80 percent perspective"
Ready to give the 80 percent perspective a chance? Here are ideas for how to loosen up your grip and give yourself, and others, some breathing room.
First, focus your energy on what needs to be in place to take the best care of yourself. Taking care of your health is priority number one—medication, diet, rest, and anything else you need to do to manage your condition. So, if you’re looking for a starting place, this is one aspect of your life where striving for 100 percent makes sense. After all, your self-care is the cornerstone of your life.
Assuming you aren’t superwoman/man, maintaining 100 percent self-care may require making some adjustments in the other areas of your life. Eighty percent doesn’t have to mean an across the board cut, but instead doing some reallocating to take the pressure off yourself.
Let’s start with your family. Parents often run themselves ragged with work around the house, trying to participate in community activities while also trying to have real quality time with their children. If that’s you, then it might be time to look at where you can tighten up and where you can lighten up.
Could your house be a little less spotless, with the laundry waiting an extra day, the lawn waiting a few days? Eighty percent might mean a less-than-perfect house, but it will also give you more time to spend enjoying your family. Get a little more rest and have a little less stress. And what if you asked other family members to help out, giving up some of your control and giving them a chance to give you a hand?
Keep in mind that expectations for other people can lead to disappointment. Other people aren’t always going to act the way we think they should or hope they would. Everybody has days when they aren’t on their A-game, when they don’t feel good, when they aren’t so supportive. Instead of expecting the people of your life to be at 100 percent, how about cutting them some slack, too? Given that you are dealing with human beings here, 80 percent isn’t so bad. Patience helps.
You might also look at other ways you spend your time. What do you “need” to commit to? Something that you really want to do, or something that you feel like you should do? Do you need to go to that meeting or commit to that weekend activity? If you look at your commitments from the 80 percent perspective, you might find that good enough, and not perfect, can leave you with more balance in your life.
And what about you? Try going a little easier on yourself. When you hear that voice of self-criticism start to zero in on what you should have done or didn't do perfectly, remind yourself of the 80 percent perspective. Give yourself credit for doing the best you can.
Speaking of the word "should:" Every time the word “should” creeps into your self-talk, ask yourself, “Who says?” Asking this question is a way to assess when the need to be perfect—and to live up to unrealistic expectations for yourself and others—is interfering with your well-being. In other words, call yourself out on all that “should-ing.”
Loosen up on that tight grip. Show some compassion toward yourself, and it will be a lot easier to feel compassionate toward others. We are all in this together.