Adjusting Our Expectations

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One of the most challenging times of year can be the holidays. Why is that?

Oh, sure, dealing with ‘witchy Aunt Karen’ isn’t fun. And let’s not even talk about ‘Uncle Glenn’s drinking’, and how he gets louder and more opinionated by the hour. Or trying to avoid your ‘Cousin Pam-the Answer Woman’, who repeatedly tells you what you should do to ‘fix your life’. How to best cope with them is a column for another day, and involves using lots of patience, our best listening skills, and not taking it personally.

Instead, I’m talking here about celebrating a holiday with reasonably functional friends and family. But that, too, can be a challenge. Why? It’s all about our ‘expectations’.

Have you ever noticed how we ‘expect’ that everyone knows the ‘right way’ to do it? They ‘should’ celebrate the holiday just as we do. Eat the same food, prepare it the same way, exchange and open gifts the way we’ve always done it. You get the idea.

And when that doesn’t happen, it creates what I call a brain jangle. It startles us because it’s not the way we expect it to be. It feels wrong. That’s not the way you’re ‘supposed’ to do it.

Here’s an example:

The year I was sixteen, my family went to Easter dinner at the Smith’s house. Jane Smith was a fabulous cook, and I was really looking forward to her turkey dinner. But she had cooked a ham. Brain jangle! You see, my family had always had turkey twice a year: at Christmas and at Easter. I was pretty sure it was a social requirement to have turkey at Easter, and was about to announce that aloud.

Happily, just before I stuck my foot in my mouth, my sister whispered to me that a lot of people serve ham at Easter instead of turkey. Because I knew she is more socially adept than I, she had to be right, and so I kept my mouth shut. But without my sister’s timely intervention, I would have embarrassed my parents, and guaranteed I’d never be invited again to share in their delicious ham. Thank you, Sis!

And that was my introduction to the idea that there is more than one choice when making a holiday dinner. Who knew? And today, there are so many wonderful choices. I’ve had ham, turkey, tamales, prime rib, vegan casserole and more, and it’s all delicious. And I’m a lot more welcome as a guest than I would be if I insisted the host or hostess could only serve turkey. Would you want that kind of guest? Me, neither!

Next, there was my experience as a newlywed, when I discovered that there is more than one way to open Christmas presents.

I was raised in a rambunctious family of six. Christmas morning was a wonderful free-for-all, where all the children opened their presents at the same time. But my new husband was an only child. So ‘Christmas gift opening’ with my new in-laws meant that we all sat in a circle, and we went around the circle, each person opening one gift at a time. Major brain jangle. It just felt ‘wrong’. Why? Because it was the exact opposite of the way I had grown up. It took some mental adjustment on my part to realize my ‘expectations’ of ‘the right way’ were preventing me from comfortably adapting to an alternative. This process worked, too. It might not ever be my favorite way, but I could adapt.

And then there is cleaning up the kitchen after the holiday dinner. Again, if people don’t do it the way you are used to, it can be a brain jangle if you let it.

There is a noted family therapist, Virginia Satir, who is very insightful about the effect our expectations can have on each other. So she decided to take on the challenge of counting all the possible ways you can go from dirty dishes on the table to clean dishes in the cabinet. She discovered that there are over 250 ways to arrive at ‘clean dishes’. 250!

And yet, do you notice that if someone isn’t cleaning the dishes the way we like, it can create an argument?! The power of our expectations gets in the way of having a good time together.

So now, as I share holiday events with friends and family, I try to avoid that ‘brain jangle’. I adjust my expectations before I walk through the door. I remind myself I might learn a new way – their way – to celebrate holiday. It sure makes the holidays a lot more fun!

Terry Turner
As a military brat, Terry’s early life was spent enjoying other countries and cultures. Add to this her forty years of teaching Communication Skills in both aerospace and education, and she has many ideas to share and stories to tell. Now happily retired and living in Northern California, she spends her time writing and enjoying life.
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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Karen Calanchini says:

    Great article and I sure can relate. This applies to all of life and not simply holidays. I was just telling someone about expectations and how it has interested and confused me at times. My first one after marrying my husband was the first time I asked him what he wanted for dinner and he said, “spaghetti and meatballs.” This was to be his answer to the same question for over 56 years now. When pasta, including spaghetti starting getting adventurous with the addition of different meats, adding simply veggies to the pasta and different sauces, I was elated and right there to try all the newest recipes. So, one day I made what was to become my favorite meatball recipe with eggplant in the meatballs. I did an Asian spin on it and came up with a mighty fine spaghetti recipe. When hubby saw this on his plate and asked what it was, I announced it was spaghetti and meatballs. “No, it is not,” he said. Being a new bride and learning how to cook was hard enough, but to have the love of my life not happy about his dinner was not good. Right then and there I decided I would become the best cook I could be, adventurous, always trying the latest and buying the best ingredients. I did just that and my love became my best taster and honest critic. He goes along with all my culinary trials and loves it all.
    Thanks for a trip down memory lane.

    • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

      Karen, what a fabulous story. You explained so perfectly how what we expect can change how we perceive what’s happening – in this case, your creative change to the spaghetti and meatball dinner.
      How wonderful that you both decided to become adventurous, and your husband is such a great supporter. Yummy on so many levels. Way to Go!

  2. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Great post. I often reflect on how expectations can taint an experience, be it a meal, a movie, or just a moment.

    To paraphrase from Ray Wylie Hubbard’s song Mother Blues: keep your gratitude higher than your expectations, and you’ll have a good day.

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Man, I love that song. I first heard him play it on Letterman.

      He played it at his show in the Old City Hall loft in Redding a few years back, his son on his right playing that Les Paul Gold Top. I couldn’t believe it—Ray Wylie upstairs in the Old City Hall. Great song after great song after great song…

      • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

        I know, Steve! Isn’t it amazing to think of the fabulous entertainers we have had here in Redding?! And to have Ray Wylie here. (I was so sorry to have missed it. Thank goodness for YouTube, even though it’s not the same.)

    • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

      I love that line from Ray Wylie, Hal! Thank you.

      And you are so right in your comment- expectations can taint an experience. Well said.
      So keeping my gratitude higher than my expectations is my new motto. Thanks!

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    With my family it’s turkey for Thanksgiving, ham for Easter, Dungeness crab for Christmas Eve, and nothing in particular for Christmas dinner—no turkey, prime rib, or any other traditional fare on a yearly basis.

    Growing up, we opened Christmas presents on Christmas Eve—I understood this was in keeping with the Three Wise Men of the East coming to the manger in the evening, bearing gifts. When I got married I quickly learned that Santa comes at night and the presents are waiting under the tree to be opened on Christmas morning, idiot.

    Our oldest daughter has knitted everyone in the family large stockings, and the stocking stuffers are my favorite part of the gift openings. Frankly, if the gift-giving was limited to stocking stuffers—at least for the adults—I’d be less grumpy about Christmas. My wife and three daughters know what they like and what they don’t like, and none of them are good actors. Only one of them puts up an Amazon wish list. Bless her. The others want to be surprised. Ugh.

    • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

      What a good description of how the holidays can be so different! Thank you, Steve. And it’s rough when you’ve given it your best shot, and the response is something like this cute line I read once, “Thank you so much for this. It’s what I always wanted. Just not very much.” Good luck this year!

  4. Avatar Elizabeth Waterbury says:

    Great article and an excellent point. This season can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Thanks for showing us a path out of the mess!

    • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

      Thank you so much, dear Liz!! 🙂 Have fun.

      Digressing a bit, I know your Holiday Concert Saturday evening is going to be fantastic with choirs and brass! Have a glorious time.

  5. Great timing, Terry. there were many years when I went into debt buying Christmas gifts, and I was always stressed about getting just the right thing for family and friends.

    In my family this year, the adults are going to do a white elephant exchange, which is a lot of fun, both leading up to it finding the items, and the day of the exchange. For the older grandkids, I try to give experiences, since they have so much stuff already.

    And last year my sisters and I gave each other things that belonged to us, that we knew our sister coveted. (Except for big things, like my house.) It’s fun and satisfying.

    Thanks, Terry, for addressing a good topic when we need it most.

    • Terry Turner Terry Turner says:

      Thank you, Doni! I love your gift ideas. The white elephant exchange makes a formerly stressful time something that is fun.
      And, as it happens, I took a class once on the science of happiness. They discovered that positive shared experiences are something that creates lasting happy memories much more than a present received. Who knew? So your idea of experiences with your grandkids is brilliant!
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  6. Avatar Robin says:

    Great read!