Advice My Mother Gave Me Lesson #1: The Art of Zero Expectations

My mom once told me, the happiest way to go through life is to have zero expectation for people. It’s not a popular piece of advice, but one I have found, surprise! much happiness in. People are destined to let you down, so why expect anything from them? This doesn’t explain it well, and it seems like a dismal approach to relationships and life. This piece of advice is a little complicated, so please hear me out. The fact is, we are meant to have standards for the people we allow into our lives. When we have expectations for people, we’re setting others and ourselves up for failure. Standards and expectations are two very separate things. Let me explain.

What are Standards?

I like to think of standards as the very basic human fundamentals I have for friends and relationships. We can call these, Standards of Behavior.  If people don’t meet these basic standards of behavior, then they’re not going to be invited very deeply into my life. It may sound harsh, but these standards aren’t hard to meet. We’re talking about things like:

Kindness, is this person nice to me?

Mutual Reciprocation, do they feel the same way towards me?

Trustworthiness, can I share intimate things with them?

Honesty, will this person be sincere with me?

Reliability, has this person been consistent with me?

These standards are here to help us make conscious decisions about who we engage with at a deeper level. This goes for both friendships and romantic relationships. When we let people into our lives willy-nilly, we usually encounter heartbreak and loss. Who wants to be around someone who isn’t kind to them? A gal or guy you’re seeing who isn’t mutually reciprocating with you can lead you on a wild goose chase. A friend who isn’t very trustworthy may spread gossip about something deeply private you confided in them with. It’s hard to get close to someone who isn’t being honest with you. If an unreliable friend isn’t willing to show up for coffee, will they be able to show up for you when you need them?

These five standards need to be met in order for me to engage deeper with a friend or pursue a relationship further. Don’t get me wrong, there’s room for grace and mistakes here. People are people, and like I’ve already said, they will let you down. But by surrounding ourselves with a standard of people, we will experience less heartache and conflict. When you choose friends and engage in relationships that strive to uphold these principles, you will be surrounding yourself with people who are going to choose you.

Standards Aren’t a One-Way Street  

Let it also be known that these are standard I have for myself, and you should too. If I’m not meeting these standards, then I can’t uphold anyone else to these standards either. Standards are a two-way street. How on earth can you have a standard for someone else, but not meet that standard yourself? That my friends, we would call a double standard, which we all know is frowned upon.

You can also think of standards like principles of conduct that are informed by notions of honor and decency (the dictionary’s words, not my own). These then allow us to evaluate people and ascribe value to them. Now value in this sense is not to make it sound like certain people are more valuable than others. Every person is deserving of love. It’s more on the level of how valuable a person is for your time, thoughts, talents, and heart, is how deserving they are of you. Measuring a person’s value isn’t selfish, and it isn’t a reason to dump a friend or not be nice to someone. But at the end of the day, we can only invite so many people into the inner circle of our lives. Cluttering up that small space with people who don’t deserve to be there isn’t doing you any favors. Toxic relationships are toxic for a reason. Sometimes we have to clean up our inner circle. And like cleaning up toxic waste, it will take time.

So, What are Expectations then?

Alright, so we’ve laid out the framework for standards. Now, back to those pesky expectations. So what do I mean when I say we should have zero expectations for people? What I’m saying is we should never expect things from people. Expecting has a box-like quality to it. When we expect people to behave a certain way, do a certain thing, we’re requiring people to fulfill an obligation that they might have not signed up for. Aka, putting them in a box. Why do we do it? Because we inherently believe relationships should look a certain way. I’m looking at you Hollywood.

Usually, expectations go unannounced, unspoken. They’re assumptions, and we all know what happens when we assume… When you’re in a relationship, do you find yourself expecting your significant other to just read your mind all the time? Maybe you expect you friend to text you everyday. Expectations are dangerous to our relationships and well-being.

When my husband and I started dating, I had zero expectation for how things were going to pan out. But I hadn’t always done that in the past. I expected the guy to always call me back, and when he wouldn’t I’d get sad or upset. I’d expect my old boyfriends to bring me flowers every once in awhile, but when they never did, I’d get upset. Expectations can be trivial or serious. You may have an expectation that you’re going to become a stay-at-home parent one day, or maybe expect your friend to always be available for you when you need them. Either way, expectations, not standards, limit freedom. Freedom to be who you are, and freedom for people to be who they are. And who wants that?

Expecting nothing from anyone else and only having expectations for myself is a subtle art. Once I learned this and trained myself to think like this, I found that my life had less disappointment when things didn’t go the way I had envisioned. It relaxed me and made me more easy going. I also learned a lot about how selfish I can be and how unfair I was for expecting people to be a certain way towards me. Not only did it make my everyday life happier and benefit my relationships, but it made my faith more proactive. Since I no longer was expecting a certain spiritual environment or connection to be created for me, it forced me to step into the space that God had already created for me. I wasn’t just waiting for someone else to make the first move or open a door for me. With this new frame of mind, grace has become my first response to people that would have disappointed me in the past.