How to Recognize—and Release—the 'Emotional Expectations' People Put on You
You know the drill: You get some bad news or have a tough day at work. All you want to do is rant to your roommates or get some sympathy from your partner. But as you start to unload, you feel a shift—maybe your friend grimaces, or cuts you off to say that things could be worse. They seem shocked at how agitated you seem. “This isn’t like you,” they might add.
The implication is obvious: You shouldn’t feel this way.
This isn’t what they expect from you. Complaining about your boss doesn’t jive with your role as the always-sunny member of your friend group. To them, you have a part to play—and you’re breaking from that role.
Holding yourself to others’ “emotional expectations” isn’t just annoying, neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D. tells Shine, it can actually stop you from processing your own emotions, hindering your ability to cope—now and in the future.
Maybe you are happy most of the time, or tend toward calm in stressful situations. But all of us, no matter how even-keeled, flow through a natural range of emotions. And when we’re kept from expressing those emotions to others, we’re stuck performing other emotions, the ones our parents and partners and loved ones have come to expect.
Social media has only made it easier to pigeonhole others—and see ourselves as one-trick ponies. Think of the #goodvibesonly yoga teacher you might follow. If you sat down with them today, chances are you’d have a pretty solid expectation of what they’d say and how they’d act, regardless of how they might actually be feeling. Thanks to your own tweets, posts and stories, your friends might feel the same way. But IRL, we humans have a dizzying range of emotions that don’t always fit into a tidy Instagram bio. And that’s a good thing, Hafeez says.
“Life is about experiencing a diverse number of situations and learning about yourself through those experiences—how you react to them, how you hope to react in the future, and what you want to continue exploring and what you wish to move on from,” Hafeez says. “When we are pressured by others’ wishes for us, it stunts the process of figuring out what we feel and what we want.”
It can also be incredibly frustrating, and even create distance between you and your loved ones. Feeling unable to share what you’re going through can leave you feeling isolated.
“If there is an expectation to only ever express a few emotions that those around you are comfortable dealing with, then you begin to suppress your true feelings in times of hardship, which leads you to feel even more lonely in your struggles,” she says.
So, how do you break free from the way other people see you?
Start by understanding where those expectations are coming from.
“Emotional shamers are not malicious, in the majority of cases, and most of them really do care for the person feeling down,” Hafeez says. “They want that person to feel OK.”
The people close to us can often personalize the way we feel. “Many people care so much for you that they feel inadequate when you don’t feel your best,” Hafeez says. “They feel like they are failing,” so they may encourage you to only act in a way that makes them feel like a good friend.
You can start to push back against those expectations by being upfront about how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it.
“It is helpful for you, as well as for them, to acknowledge that it is not their place in your day that has you feeling down,” Hafeez says. “This goes a long way into affirming them so they can give you space to emotionally heal or rest.”
If you hear yourself apologizing for your mood or actions, pause.
Consider why you’re apologizing. Have you actually done any harm, or are you just trying to maintain the status quo?
Then, consider the emotional limitations you put on yourself. Perhaps your friends expect you to be happy 24⁄7 because that’s what you expect of yourself. Do you brush away negative thoughts? Beat yourself up for feeling less-than-grateful for certain things in your life? Paste a smile on your face when you really feel like frowning?
Holding yourself emotionally hostage can be exhausting, and it might give others the green light to do the same.
The next time you’re feeling angry, or sad, try looking in the mirror and telling yourself how you feel—then, allow yourself to feel it. Studies show that fighting our negative emotions actually does more harm than good. What serves us best is greeting our emotions with acceptance instead of criticism, judgement, or the urge to change them ASAP. It might not feel easy at first, but with practice it'll get easier.
The next time an uncomfortable emotion pops up, try accepting it with the RAIN technique.
●︎ Recognize: Notice the feeling
●︎ Allow: Don’t fight the feeling
●︎ Investigate: Get curious about the feeling
●︎ Non-Identification: Separate yourself from the feeling
It might sound counterintuitive, but if we accept our negative emotions and allow ourselves to experience and show them, we actually create a greater and healthier change—without pressuring ourselves to perform at all.
You can be the "chill one" and feel excited, sad, energized, nervous—all the feels. Embrace your emotional range, and others will start to learn to as well.
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