This month our newsletter focuses on expectations, which seems appropriate given that it underpins so much of what happens this time of year. Whether it’s family gatherings and traditions, gift giving, or creating New Year’s resolutions, fulfilled versus misaligned expectations often becomes the silent judge of success or failure.
When my autistic son was a young child, holiday gatherings were often painful for him. The smell of mint jelly would make him gag, the sound of multiple conversations at once made him cover his ears, and too many people in a room made him agitated. He hated being hugged or touched unexpectedly, and the questions from relatives made him anxious. Yet, he loved these relatives and they loved him. As his mom, it felt impossible to reconcile the contrasting expectations of my autistic son, his siblings and my extended family alongside my own wish for a joyful celebration for all.
Many years later, our family celebrations look different. We might still have a large gathering, but my now 25 year old autistic son chooses when and how he participates. He joins when he is comfortable and no one expects him to push past what he can tolerate. The burden of expectations has lifted for our family – and we’re able to enjoy the holidays without the frustration that misaligned and unnecessary expectations imposed in the past.
So what ARE expectations and why do we have them?
Expectations are the beliefs we hold about what should or will happen for ourselves or others. They can help motivate us, set goals, and build our self-confidence. The problems come when misaligned expectations lead to incorrect assumptions and frustration with ourselves or others.
Whether thinking about everyday expectations or even the expectations around life choices, how can we evaluate our expectations and define our priorities? So often we subconsciously adopt expectations without thinking and convince ourselves that this is how things “have to be done.” Ask yourself:
- Where does this expectation come from? Is it important to me or is it important to others?
- If it is important to you, but the expectation is causing difficulty, is it necessary?
- If it is necessary, can it be modified in a way that would alleviate the challenge and still achieve its goal?
For example, if the expectation of family and friends is for everyone to interact with each other, and the autistic individual also wants to participate in the celebration, but being in close proximity with relatives all day causes distress, what if we step back to examine the true point of that expectation? If it is supposed to help people feel connected, how else might that work for everyone involved? When I shifted my holiday expectations so that people could join in for different amounts of time and we played games or went for walks with the dog, everyone seemed more relaxed and positive connections were more likely.
When we identify what is truly important to us, we can think creatively about how expectations can be modified to capture what is desired while diminishing the elements that are causing difficulty or harm. This helps us create spaces where we can be our authentic selves and make space for others to do the same.