One of the most challenging things in life is dealing with the expectations of people around you. Most people feel this the strongest when they feel pressure to get something done or accomplish in some way. Sometimes it’s the expectation to be a certain person or follow a specific path. Lately, I have been feeling this in the pressure to have certain emotions.
I’m about to embark on a great adventure, and when people hear that I’m moving to a new country, they immediately remark on how exciting it is. They ask about what I’m most excited for, about what I’m going to be doing. They engage deeply with the idea that I should be feeling incredibly positive about the experience. Rarely do they even contemplate that I might be somewhere else emotionally: their expectations are so strong that they can’t even imagine something else.
In reality, I am not feeling good at all about this step. Intellectually I think I’ve come to the realization that it’s a good choice for me, but emotionally it feels horribly wrong. I am afraid and sad and lonely and worried. So when I mention to someone that I’m taking this trip and they immediately pour out their own excitement, I am left trying to find a way to validate their expectations as utterly rational and legitimate, while still making space for my own feelings.
I’m allowed to not want to go. I’m allowed to wish I had made a different decision. I’m allowed to hate myself for this and hurt and cry and complain. And it’s still allowed to be a good decision that I go through with. The hard part is finding a way to communicate all this to someone when their expectation is so vastly different from the reality, to find a way to politely and subtly let them know that they are deeply mistaken and that their expectations are putting a great deal of pressure on me to perform an emotion that I’m not having (which basically sucks balls).
Thus far I haven’t found a way to do this that doesn’t involve performing excitement on some level. It’s an immediate expectation: show me this emotion! Feel this with me! Be in this space together! Unlike most unwarranted expectations in which you can try to set some boundaries before you’re expected to do something, the expectation of emotions is at such a fundamental level that it’s extremely difficult to temper or question those expectations. Oftentimes someone doesn’t even realize that their expectation is exerting pressure on another person to behave or feel a certain way, so it’s nearly impossible to tell them “your reaction of excitement implies that I should be excited too”. They get to feel excited for you even if you don’t feel excited yourself. How do you accept that kind emotion and not invalidate someone else while giving yourself space not to feel it too?
I see a lot of parallels here with accepting compliments, in that I have to accept something as someone else’s truth, something that they can honestly believe or feel and that my own perceptions of a situation don’t mean they’re lying to me or that they’re horrifically wrong. Just because not everyone agrees with me that ice cream is the greatest thing ever doesn’t mean it’s some kind of long con that they’re using to fuck me over emotionally. Similarly, just because someone is excited where I am not doesn’t mean that they’re trying to convince me that I have to be excited and love this trip regardless of my actual feelings.
A big part of this has to do with assumptions about change and difference, and the values that lie therein.
One of the things that we seem to place an unquestioned value on is newness: things that are different, variety, change. When someone makes a big change, we’ll accept “I needed a change of scenery” or “It’s something new” as reason enough for the change. Oftentimes we don’t even ask why this thing in particular would be good: a new computer is always better than an older one. Partially it’s novelty. We don’t know the downsides yet.
I’ve had a lot of people tell me how exciting it is that I’m going somewhere new, that I’m making a huge change. For the most part, they don’t ask more than where I’m going and what I’m studying. They probably have never been to Ireland and know nothing about it. But it’s supposed to be a good thing because it’s different, it’s a leap of faith, it’s the challenge and the excitement of seeing things you’ve never seen before and meeting people unlike the people you already knew.
This kind of positive is seen in prioritizing “diversity”. The idea is that having a variety of different perspectives, minds, and types of people will give us a wider pool to draw from that enriches everyone’s experience and creates better ideas and solutions in the end. There is supposed to be something good about having differences around. We criticize those who live in echo chambers, surrounded only by like minded individuals.
There is definitely a relationship between change and diversity. Changes bring us to new experiences and people, they expose us to things that we otherwise wouldn’t see. And so change is good. Change is growth. Change is moving forward.
But is change for change’s sake worth it? Are things that are new inherently better than the old? Obviously not. Sometimes things exist the way they do for a reason: we’ve figured out the best way to make them happen, or we’ve found a place that is comfortable and happy, or the way things are already helps us grow by challenging and supporting us in equal measure.
Of course the problem is that we can’t know which is better until we’ve tried the change. We just have to give up what was working (if it was working) and hope. And many times we forget about the benefits of the familiar, the comfortable: we forget that humans are creatures of habit and that we need routines to function, we forget about our own idiosyncracies and the ways that people around us have learned to adjust to those, we forget what it means to have a history with people so that we don’t have to explain everything and we can just rely on them quietly in the ways we always have.
There is something to be said for the evil you know. You have the skills to manage it, you have the confidence to know that you have those skills, and you don’t have to use extra brain power discovering. There are so many downsides to newness, and perhaps they are just laziness or fear, but for some people those are legitimate concerns: how much of my mind do I have to use remaining functional here? For those without enough spoons, consistency and patterns can literally be a lifesaver. Rarely do we hear people sing the praises of consistency though. So for today, I am going to remind everyone to be thankful of the things that they do each day that they don’t have to think about or worry about or question, the things that are simply part of the scenery. Those things have a subtle beauty.