At a time of year when many of the people around you may be making new year's resolutions, it can be a really important part of a yoga practice to check in with your expectations of yourself. What do you expect of yourself this year, and how can you find a balance between challenging yourself, and setting compassionate, flexible expectations for yourself? In a yoga practice, we talk a lot about releasing our expectations; this idea is at the core of having a beginner's mind. But what does it mean to actually "release your expectations"? Aren't expectations (whether they're expectations we place on ourselves, or ones that others place upon us) necessary in order for us to accomplish what we want and to fulfill our responsibilities to the people we love?
The thing is, I think that for a lot of us, our expectations of ourselves aren't really our own. More often, they're descended from expectations others have had of us in past relationships (whether that's relationships with friends, family members, co-workers, or partners). I think this unconscious adoption of others' expectations is especially applicable if, like me, you identify as a people pleaser. The expectations we place on ourselves can be a direct line to the core beliefs we have about ourselves. Upon reflection, I was able to realize that my desire to make everyone happy in every situation (at the expense of my own happiness and peace of mind) was directly linked to my beliefs about my own worth as a human being. So often, when you discover a pattern in your expectations of yourself, you can trace that back to a more basic, engrained belief you might operate according to, in a reactive way.
"If I disappoint someone, they won't love me anymore or something bad will happen)."
"My worth comes from my ability to make everyone like me."
"I am not inherently worthy of love, and thus must make up for it by making sure everyone is happy."
"Everyone else's happiness depends on me."
"Other people's happiness matters more than my own."
For me, being a people pleaser and holding myself to a perfectionistic standard ("I can't be anything less than perfect at all times or everyone will hate me") is a really hard habit to break because it's more than just a set of behaviours--it becomes a way of seeing the world.
In her book Anatomy of the Spirit, Caroline Myss writes about the importance of giving attention to the feelings that fuel our decisions. Are you making decisions from a place of love, she asks, or a place of fear? I truly believe that the tendency to be a people pleaser and to hold yourself to a standard of perfection comes from fear--fear that we will face conflict with people we care about, fear that we'll be rejected, fear that we won't be loved anymore. A practice I've been undertaking over the last year, when I catch myself in a people pleasing loop, is to start by asking myself "What am I afraid is going to happen if I say no to this person?" One of the odd things about fear, which may sound counterintuitive, is that the more specific you require your fear to be, the more shape and definition you give it by really looking at what you're afraid of...the less scary it becomes. The scariest horror movies are the ones where they don't show the monster up close; your imagination creates something way scarier than what they could actually show. The more vague and undefined our fears are, the less power they have over us.
Starting with fear cuts right to the heart of the matter. What are you afraid of? Start there.