Expectation vs. Reality

The thing that has always been hardest for me in terms of anxiety – and life in general, if I’m honest – is managing my expectations. I am terrible at this. I’ve been working on it for years, and though I’m better than I used to be, I struggle with it daily. It doesn’t help that they’re all over the map depending on various circumstances and what not.

On the one hand, I find myself telling my students daily that it’s ok to not understand something the first or second or fifth time. I tell them that I don’t expect that. I just expect them to try it. I give them many chances, even when we’ve had the conversation about why they’re failing what seems like 50 times and yet their behavior hasn’t changed. Sometimes someone will apologize for something, and I’ll go “Thank you, but there’s absolutely no way you could have known. It’s totally ok.”

On the other hand, though, my expectations about some things are high AF and, often, I feel that’s justified. I don’t think it’s out of line for me to expect an adult to act like, oh, I don’t know, an adult, and honor their obligations or own up to a gap in knowledge or be considerate. Some of my high expectations are unreasonable, and I’m working on that. I’m learning how to recognize when my high expectations make sense and when they don’t.

The thing that most people don’t understand is that, no matter how high my expectations are for them, they are always – always – many, many times higher than that for myself. I don’t make a mistake, say “oh well” and go about my day. I make a mistake and ruminate about that shit for years. I’m still thinking about stuff I did in high school, not to mention things more recent. And it’s not just mistakes; failure feels personal. Even when I’ve done everything I possibly could, I still wonder what else I could have done. When it’s not even my fault, and I know it’s not my fault, I wonder what I did wrong. Hearing criticism is not a simple matter of hearing it, taking it in, and then taking action. It always feels like a huge emotional reckoning, even when it’s not that big of a deal. But I have a hard time sharing this with people because, like everyone, I don’t want people to think I’m incompetent or can’t handle my business. I don’t want people to think that I’m weak, because I’m not. I’m incredibly emotionally resilient and dealing with a challenge that many people don’t understand. I have a hard time balancing that with how deeply I feel things, and how much I expect of myself.

Case in point: having not had a chance to really relax for more than two days since the beginning of October, I was initially really protective of my week off for the holidays. I wanted to do nothing but sit on my couch and watch While You Were Sleeping and You’ve Got Mail and Die Hard (best three Christmas movies ever). When the dude floated the idea of going to North Carolina to see Bird and the brother, part of me wanted to say no. But a bigger part of me recognized that spending time with people you are unabashedly in love with is very different from other types of trips. So I said yes, and we planned, and all was well.

Until we got to about a week before break. I could feel myself starting to fray; though I was able to partially knit myself back together each night with yoga and sleep, it was like I unraveled more during the day than I could fully recover from. I was like Penelope in reverse. My long heritage of stoic German Midwesternism and the work ethic instilled by my mom told me to ignore to growing feeling of being unsettled. I felt good enough at the start of each day that I could forget that I didn’t feel as good as the day before. I could ignore the increasingly frequent tightness in my chest and my continued streak of waking for an hour or more each night because, as is so often the way with anxiety, I knew how to convince myself of whatever it was I had decided I needed to hear.

It didn’t help that the drive down to North Carolina was rough: the dog was sick a lot, the car we were in wasn’t very comfortable in the back seat (where I needed to sit to take care of the dog), and we got caught in so much traffic that it took us seven hours to get to D.C. instead of the usual four and a half. We decided to stop in Richmond for the night, and I’m so glad we did. Had we kept going, I’m certain the next morning would have been much worse.

As it was, I woke up anxious and nauseous and feeling very fragile. I tried to eat breakfast, but that wasn’t working for me. I texted my sister and Bird and talked to the dude, but none of it helped. I ended up sobbing – and I mean sobbing, full out gasping for breath, red face, weird grimace – into the dude’s chest. Thankfully, it only lasted a few minutes, and then I weirdly felt much better. As I started to move around and get ready to finish the drive to Raleigh, I realized: that was a panic attack. It looked different from the ones I used to have, but there is no doubt in my mind that’s what it was. And again, my weird dichotomous expectations of myself were clamoring to be heard: half of me was so proud of myself, because on the whole that was so much less intense than the ones I used to have, and that is all because of my choices and hard work (and help from my therapist and support people). The other half of me, though, was like fuuuuuuuuuuuck, I was on a streak of almost a year and now I’ve ruined it. As if I had decided to have a panic attack.

Part of why anxiety-related expectations are so hard is because anxiety is not linear. It’s not a progression. That doesn’t mean there’s not progress – obviously there is – but trending positive doesn’t mean your bad days are over. The two are not mutually exclusive.

I know this, and yet I expected myself to adhere to some arbitrary linear timeline of “getting better”. In my mind, I had moved on from panic attacks and would not be going back. I was done with them. Clearly, I was wrong.

But I have learned some good things, as tends to happen with any sort of difficult emotional upheaval. They are, in no particular order:

  • Listen to yourself. Had I done that, I would have probably taken a day off at some point in there. And though that is a small thing, I think it would have helped a lot.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. This is definitely a case of me giving advice I struggle to follow, but here’s the deal. This is a goal, not an imperative. It’s something I’m working towards, and it is slow and difficult going. But it is going.
  • Don’t just maintain. By now you guys know that my anxiety maintenance consists of as much yoga as possible, drinking very rarely, blogging, making sure I get enough sleep, and lots of down time. This is working for me, for the most part. In the last two months, I’ve learned that I need to be even more focused on my self-care when I feel myself starting to unravel. I got a massage today, and I swear to god, I have not felt this relaxed in months. I keep telling myself that $100 out of my budget every month isn’t worth it, but every time I get one, I walk out of there thinking Why don’t I do this regularly?. I need to make a commitment to do this for myself, because it’s only for me. It’s not for anxiety management, or my relationship, or my job. It is for me, and me alone, and that is necessary.

I will continue to struggle with managing my expectations. I will continue to disappoint myself. I will continue to be disappointed in others, whether or not my expectations were well-founded. I know this. This is a daily reckoning. And I will keep trying.


2 thoughts on “Expectation vs. Reality

  1. YES! One of the most difficult things for me to realize this last round of anxiety-related crud was that it had changed on me. Whereas before, I couldn’t sleep or eat or clean the house, this time I did all of those things, so I didn’t think I was struggling as badly. And maybe I wasn’t, but the panic attacks were there, and the anxiety was present constantly. I knew I needed medication the first time I addressed my anxiety because the anxiety started to be accompanied by depression. This time, the depression wasn’t there. So it took me a long time to realize medication would still be helpful, even if I was not depressed.

    And I felt betrayed by myself because of this change in how my anxiety presented itself. It’s like having a friend who is consistently one way and then she starts acting all weird. You don’t know quite what to do for a while. At first, I thought this sucked a lot (and part of me still thinks this), but now that I’m feeling better again, I realize that as I grow and change, my anxiety will too. I might not like that, but it doesn’t have to be bad. I can be a call to more growth.


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