If our expectations affect our own behavior, the behavior of others, our relationships and even our health, then they’re pretty important. We talked about how disappointment is the difference between expectation and reality. But where do our expectations come from? What is it that’s setting us up for those differences and that disappointment?
We begin filling up our backpack of expectations from the moment we’re born. Some of us learn to expect attention, food, dry clothes, or snuggles when we cry. Some of us learn to expect anger or neglect. These are expectations set from experience. Other expectations are set by observation, how we see our friends and family interact with each other and with strangers in all types of circumstances. Where we live, both the macro and micro cultures we live in form expectations. Society at large sets expectations, norms and standards for us as well.
Today I want to talk a bit about those expectations, the ones set for us by society and culture. And I want to talk about it because those expectations translate so subtly into our own “shoulds” that unless we’re hyper-vigilant, can seriously affect our own sense of self.
What kind of norms am I talking about? We live in a curated world. This has always been true, but technology has made so much more of that world so accessible, that we’re inundated with the message more and more. Let’s talk through a few examples.
I’m a photographer. I owned a portrait studio for awhile and I also took travel, landscapes and dog portraits for years. I started shooting in college with film, left it completely for many years and started again at the beginning of the digital revolution. I’ve watched digital photography and processing come of age over the last few decades.
I am not declaring either digital photography nor processing an enemy in what I’m about to say, please don’t misunderstand. They are tools, tools that can be used to make great art, tools that can be used for social commentary, tools that can be used to portray emotion, portray reality, and to manipulate reality. This has always been true. Darkroom images were manipulated as well. Images that move you…so most photos that are used in media, whether that’s to sell you something or convince you of something are pretty significantly manipulated.
Many of us are aware of the degree of manipulation of images of women in print and we’re aware of the damage it causes. I’m not going to rehash that. Although, I may post an example of typical adjustments made to images before publication. It’s actually not just photographic processing that manipulates reality, but the whole process, including styling hair and especially makeup and lighting. So, we know that images of women in media are highly manipulated and damaging. We know. And it still makes little difference. We’re still faced with social norms of impossible standards. And we still feel the expectation within ourselves and from others to meet those standards. But, we can’t. It’s impossible to do so.
That’s a really obvious example, one that’s made the news frequently in the last several years. But, let’s talk about a few more. Think of every example of a beach you’ve seen in print, movies or online. Think of every example of images of Fall foliage shots. Think of mountain lakes and country roads. The images we see of our natural world are manipulated too. They’re curated to include only the most breathtaking shots and then those shots are enhanced. What are the images of the travel photos you see of your vacation location? They’re taken from the most flattering angle at the most flattering time of day. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. It can be if it’s completely intentionally misleading. But, I just want you to think about how your expectations are being unconsciously formed. Are your expectations of the beach, or the woods, or the mountains affected by the curated images you see? Of course, they are. Our world is stunningly beautiful. Grand. Magnificent. But, if your real life experience is being compared to manipulated, curated images, your experience might come up on the short end of the stick. Your expectations weren’t based on a healthy model.
It’s not just photography that does this for us. I’m going to read you a few paragraphs from a piece published last week by Robert Finch about his first experience visiting Walden Pond.
It was not until much later that I realized I had been disappointed, not by Walden, but my own expectations. I had read the book and then had gone out and expected the reality of the natural setting to unfold, chapter by chapter, with the same ease and drama that Thoreau had quarried out of it only after years of hard work fashioning the landscape into the stuff of literature. It was my first lesson in mistaking art for place.
What we see, or experience in nature depends, not so much on where we are as on an almost infinite number of other factors: how much we know, or think we know about a place, our physical condition and mood, the time of day or year, the weather, the wind, the sky, the clothes we wear, whether we are alone or with other people, and so on. But often the most important factor is how we have experienced a place vicariously before we actually experience it in person.
Most of us are, in a sense, crippled in our encounters with nature because our formative experiences of the natural world are not first-hand but “packaged” – in books, movies, television documentaries, museum exhibits, guided nature walks, lectures, and of course the infinite representations of nature on the Internet. No matter how informative or professional these representations may be, we are conditioned by them to expect nature itself to appear before us in a condensed, narrated, edited, illustrated, and above all entertaining form, one that requires no investment from us.
Here’s the thing. We expect our lives to unfold in that same “condensed, narrated, edited, illustrated, and above all entertaining form.” But they don’t. Our lives are not curated. Not edited. Not enhanced. The colors aren’t saturated all the time. The walls of my apartment aren’t magnificent. They’re not Pinterest or Instagram worthy.
When we allow culture to set our norms, standards, and expectations, we’re dooming ourselves for a life filled with a vague or not-so-vague sense of, “I’m not good enough.” I’m not pretty enough. Not together enough. Not stylish enough. Not athletic enough. Not loved enough. Not organized enough. Not rich enough. Not perfect enough. Not enough.
We know our friends’ social media accounts are a curated subset of their lives. We know the fights, the late nights, the falling apart marriages, the financial stresses, and the kids checked in to addiction centers don’t usually make our social media feeds. Our whole kitchens don’t look like that pretty corner where the Instagram image was taken and our kids only hugged for a second, bribed with an ice cream cone before adorable little Emily shoved that cone up Jennifer’s nose and an all-out war broke out. Again.
We know it.
The problem is that knowing doesn’t keep us from comparing.
This isn’t an episode about the damaging effects of social media on teen self-image, depression, and anxiety, but those statistics are becoming more available. Yes, this is an issue for teens, especially because their brains, their social skills, and their coping mechanisms aren’t fully developed. But, it’s an issue for adults too.
We live in a very false, highly curated world. If you let your expectations be set by traditional media, popular culture, or social media, your life is going to fall short every time. I just want to remind you today to start being aware of what is setting your expectations.
You will be affected by this curated world we live in. We can’t help it. I’m not suggesting you withdraw. I’m suggesting you be wise and aware of where your expectations come from. Be smart about the kinds of media you consume. Be aware of the intention behind every image, story, or entertainment.
Have conversations with your family and friends about ways you can reinforce healthy expectations with each other. Expectations about our relationships, our bodies, our homes, and our natural world. Base your expectations for experiences on values rather than appearances. So, make the beach trip about family, laughter and togetherness and less about the perfect accommodations and weather. Make the point of a vacation internal rather than external. Make the dinner date about exploration, new experiences, and learning rather than about the perfect meal in the perfect place with the perfect people.
Pay attention when you think, “I should” and ask yourself where that should originates from. If it came from your values and desires, that’s great, listen to it. If it came from your parents, your friends, your social media field, then evaluate it against your own values and desires before complying with its demands.
Do not let Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn, or any other social media feed tell you who you should be. You do you. If you need a break from social media because it’s setting up damaging expectations in your life, then, by all means, take a break. I promise it will all still be there when you come back. Pay attention to your own expectations, and those you’re setting up for your kids, intentionally and unintentionally. Make sure those expectations are healthy for you and healthy for their future.
That wraps up our March series on expectations. Because April has 5 Sundays, I think next week, I’m going to give you an update on the changes I’ve been working on this year and how those are going. The good, the bad and the ugly. And then we’ll jump into another four week series for the rest of April.