When you think about the life that you envision for yourself, what comes to mind? Is it having a certain kind of job, living in a specific place, getting paid a certain amount, traveling somewhere in particular, being married, or having children?
Most of us include some combination of these elements in our vision for our lives. Wanting these things for ourselves can be motivational and inspiring because they can help guide our decisions and where we direct our time and energy. For example, if you have a specific career in mind, you can map out what classes you need to take or which school you need to attend to get the degree that will help you enter that particular career field. Or if you want to be in a committed relationship, you might educate yourself about what a healthy relationship looks like or make an effort to learn healthy communication skills.
But what happens if these things become roadblocks to living a meaningful life instead? For example, what if you don’t achieve all of your goals according to the timeline you set for yourself? Perhaps you told yourself you would be married by 25 and have at least one child by 27, and yet here you are at 28 and nowhere near getting married — what happens now? Or what do you do if suddenly the job you thought was your dream job is actually incredibly soul-crushing? Or what if you face an unexpected health crisis that forces you to put a pause on your schooling or other goals? What if you are living through a global pandemic (just as a hypothetical)?
When the expectations we set for ourselves aren’t met, it can be easy to feel discouraged. Even worse, it can be easy to feel like we are somehow behind compared to our peers, or that we are somehow worth less than others. Instead of allowing these expectations to somehow be a measure of your worth or progress as a person, it can be helpful to take a step back and evaluate these expectations we adopt for ourselves without much thought.
You see, many of the expectations we set for ourselves are often very arbitrary and don’t factor in how much of our lives are beyond our own control. For example, if you have the arbitrary expectation for yourself that you will be married at 25, you are counting on so many uncontrollable factors falling into line to make that expectation a reality. That’s not to say that it can’t happen according to your timeline preference, but when the average age for marriage for women in the U.S. is older than 28 and 30 for men, a better approach could be to focus more on finding the best person to be with — no matter how long that takes — rather than getting married by a certain age.
These types of arbitrary expectations can divert our focus from what really matters in life (living with purpose, investing in healthy relationships, developing a strong spiritual life, etc.) for the sake of checking off boxes or accomplishments. Suddenly, making a certain amount of money, living in a certain kind of house or apartment, or just not being single becomes more important than living a life that honors our values on a day-to-day basis. That’s why it’s important to learn how to spot arbitrary expectations so you can challenge them and replace them with ones that help you lead a meaningful life. Isn’t that what we all want deep down inside, anyway?
One of the easiest ways to spot arbitrary expectations is to listen for “should” or “supposed to” phrases that show up in your vocabulary: “I’m supposed to be married by the time I’m 25;” or, “A good family should have X number of children;” or, “I should be making more money by now.” These types of phrases can indicate you may be setting an arbitrary expectation for yourself that is based on either assumptions or comparison to what your peers appear to be doing or achieving.
Remember: comparison is rarely helpful because each of us has our own path that we are called to follow. What works for someone else may not be a good fit for you. Additionally, random numbers — whether that’s regarding a paycheck, marriage age, zip code, or size of family — doesn’t help you focus on cultivating authenticity in your life.
Once you’ve learned to spot these types of expectations, you can easily replace them with ones that are more realistic, healthy, empowering, and grounded in your values for your life. For example, you could take the arbitrary expectation, "a successful person should know what their job should be and land that dream job right after college," and replace it with, "a successful person is one who has a vision for where they'd like to go and knows that it takes time to cultivate a meaningful work environment." Can you see how this reframe shifts the focus? The first articulation is a narrow definition of success that emphasizes what needs to be done to be successful. The second moves you toward a definition that's focused on creating meaning wherever you are in your career.
You can apply this reframing principle to any arbitrary expectation in your life. Try it and watch as you transform from feeling pressured, anxious, perpetually behind, or discouraged to feeling inspired and motivated to live authentically in your day-to-day life.
Read more advice from Julia about finding direction and purpose in life in her new book, A Work in Progress: Embracing the Life God Gave You.