Over the course of the last month, I have made presentations on an array of lawyer well-being topics to a number of law firms, a prosecutor’s office, legal aid clinics, two State Bar sections, and three Michigan law schools. In each of these instances, vibrant discussions ensued about the vital need to support the emotional health of today’s lawyers and the troubles that can arise when wellness is ignored.
As I sit back and reflect on what was discussed, what was learned, and what more I can do to help lawyers, judges, and law students thrive both personally and professionally, the words of those with whom I’ve spoken echo in my mind. These words repeatedly hold a central theme, and that theme seems to constantly circle back to expectations — not only the difficulties in managing one’s own expectations, but also the difficulties in managing the expectations of others.
An expectation is defined as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future; a belief that someone will or should achieve something.”1 These beliefs may or may not be realistic. We all have them and not all expectations are harmful — for example, we expect people to behave a certain way in certain situations, follow traffic laws, and show up to work on time. Our parents placed expectations on us as children, and our teachers did the same once we entered the educational system. Likewise, employers hold expectations about our abilities to perform certain tasks at work. The expectations we hold not only impact the relationship we have with ourselves, but the relationships we have with those around us.
Problems seem to arise when far too much weight is placed on the expectations of others, blurring the line between how others view us and how we really are. I hear about this dilemma often from law students struggling to live up to their parents’ expectations of their academic performance or chosen career path, the daily efforts of lawyers in solo practice to manage the demanding and often unrealistic expectations of their clients, and legal employers’ expectations of their attorneys’ billable hour requirements or ability to manage overly full and high-stress caseloads. The pressures that result from trying to live a life based upon the beliefs of others can cause significant internal conflicts, stress, and even anxiousness and depression.2
In order to begin living for ourselves, it’s important to understand that others’ expectations of us aren’t actually about us at all — they’re really about the person or people who hold them.3 Even with the best of intentions, the expectations others hold are directly related to their own personal values, morals, experiences, triumphs, and tragedies. In other words, the expectations someone holds for you aren’t an accurate gauge of what is right for you.
Why, then, do we find it necessary to measure our own success using someone else’s measuring stick? That stick could be irrelevant to what we deem as important or worthwhile in life and will surely lead toward the trap of expectation vs. reality.4 As no two individuals in our lives will have the same exact expectations for us because they differ in terms of values, morals, and personal experiences, living solely for others will ultimately result in letting someone down.5 A phrase commonly heard in 12-step programs is that “expectations are premeditated resentments.”6 They aren’t always grounded in reality and don’t take into account one’s personal desires, abilities, or even what’s reasonable or possible in a given situation.7 When we deny our own desires in favor of the desires of others, it’s no surprise that resentment, anger, and even envy arise.
Attorneys and judges face many daunting tasks every day. One of the many responsibilities is the need to make decisions — decisions that have a significant impact on the lives of others. It’s important, then, to understand that living under others’ expectations can hinder decision making.8 When the voices and opinions of those around you drown out what you want for yourself, the ability to make accurate and clear decisions is lost. This can have dramatically negative consequences both personally and professionally and lead to living a life simply based on the need for approval.
How, then, do we stop living for others, let go of their expectations, and start (or return) to living for ourselves?9 First, we must have perspective. An immediate way to ease distress is by simply remembering that someone else’s expectations for you aren’t about you at all, but about them. This provides clarity and the ability to accept these beliefs as the beholder’s problem, not your own. Second, examine your own judgements.10 Understanding the beliefs you hold toward others may also allow you to understand how others come to have certain expectations of you. This can help to more easily dismiss what others expect from you and instead live a life based upon your own needs, wants, and values. Third, find your voice.11 Be firm, not defensive. Begin identifying and expressing your emotions, opinions, wants, and needs. Help others understand that while their feelings are valid, so are yours.
As Paulo Coelho, author of my favorite novel, “The Alchemist”, said, “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.”12 It’s time we begin enjoying our own journey. Be present, pay attention, and trust yourself.