Last week, we talked about the two things that determine the success of any friendship: time and vulnerability. (If you missed it, you can read it here.) If I can be frank with you, writing it made me realize just how much work I need in the area of vulnerability, and it got me thinking about where the fear of vulnerability stems from. After a good meander down childhood lane, I arrived at the problem with expectations. Let me explain.
Growing up, I was the oldest girl of 4 kids. Being the oldest, in general, comes with a unique set of expectations, but throw in there the girl factor, and the expectations multiply tenfold.
If my mom was working, the household duties fell on me to delegate and enforce, which is an unfortunate situation to be in with your siblings, to say the least. But also, there’s an underlying assumption that you’re mature enough to handle whatever comes at you, regardless of your age and experience. So in a way, the oldest has to become more mature than the other siblings because of the expectations placed upon them. They are next in line, so to speak. (We’ll save the damage this does to the sibling relationship for another time).
We usually look at this dynamic as a good thing. We say things like “she’s so mature” and “wow, she’s so responsible.” We praise maturity and admire responsible kids (because it’s much easier to have a mature kid in the household to pick up the household duties when the parents are unavailable).
But at what cost? And what is so admirable about maturing at a young age? Isn’t it true that the youth is where the magic of wonder and possibility lies?
So why do we try to rush it?
Many oldest children mature faster, learn multi-tasking earlier in life, can hold space for the emotional needs of others, and have their shit together so-to-speak. It’s just part of the oldest sibling’s character traits.
But chaos ensues when the oldest child takes on this role at a young age with emotionally unavailable parents. Nobody is there to take care of her needs, forcing her to put on a facade of “I’ve got my shit together” no matter what’s going on underneath the surface.
And this is dangerous.
While I can’t speak to the experience of others, I can tell you what this felt like to me. It’s lonely. And it makes vulnerability even more difficult.
Why is vulnerability hard when there are expectations?
In short, when expectations are involved, vulnerability gets exponentially more difficult because we risk disappointing someone. And when we are afraid to disappoint someone, we become people-pleasers.
We want to be trusted. We want independence. We want people to like us and to speak highly of us. And we don’t want to be a burden because we can see the need for strength.
And we want to be liked so badly that we risk our own identities to achieve it.
My experience with expectations
I had spent much of my childhood caring for everyone else’s needs, so I never had time to figure out my needs. So instead, I learned how to create peace by people-pleasing the emotionally unstable members of my family. I learned how to put my head into books, holding on to the promise of a successful life. I learned how to work hard, clenching to escape from reality.
And if there was ever a time that I had to ponder my feelings, it felt so bad that I shoved them aside and drowned myself in doing things to fill my day-chasing the expectations other people had on me. After leaving the house for college, I worked excessively, and I took too many units in college because I didn’t know how to manage my feelings and because people expected me to go off to college and do something with myself without any need for guidance or direction.
Was I responsible? Yes.
Was I emotionally healthy? No.
I was fixated on being the person people wanted me to be: hard-working, successful, smart, and independent, and when I couldn’t be all those things, it was easier to get out than to ask for help.
I never had someone ask if I was okay because I was too busy ensuring everyone else was okay. I didn’t even mind it or notice it as odd at the time. I was more concerned about a family member using drugs (which was entirely out of my control) than I was worried about my own emotional turmoil. So while putting all my energy into others, I unconsciously made myself and my needs invisible. It was easier to put my energy into someone else’s life until it wasn’t.
I was forgotten because of the facade I had put on that I was always ok, consistently strong, and never needed anything. As a result, I never learned to speak up and show a bit of vulnerability by saying, “hey, I need help,” no matter how much I needed it.
There was this expectation of me that I was strong, capable, and mature, and I wanted so badly to fit that persona that even during the darkest moments of my life, I pretended everything was okay.
And I’ll tell you what-when I actually needed help, it wasn’t just help I needed; I needed a miracle because I was a fucking disaster.
- Could I figure shit out? Hell yes, I could.
- Was I strong-willed? Yes, ma’am.
- Would I always find a way? You betcha.
And because I had all of those qualities, I was able to find a way to get my hands on a gun and try to take my own life.
Today, while I have worked really hard to gain awareness around these parts of me that aren’t healthy, I still struggle to speak up and say “I’m not okay,” which is why the four words you’ll never hear me say are “I need a hug.” True story. NEVER. I will always be the first to offer you one but don’t count on me telling you that I need one. And I don’t say that like it’s a badge of honor. I say that knowing I still have work to do. And don’t we all?
The important thing is this: holding someone to a set of expectations based on your agenda can be catastrophic. It promotes people pleasing which often ends up in codependency. Both are toxic to our well-being. And it fosters confusion by hiding parts of us that make us who we are, making vulnerability even more difficult.
I’m going to end with this message for:
- The single mom who is expected to be strong for her children.
- The person who is dealing with an emotionally toxic family member.
- The wife that doesn’t want to sound needy to her husband.
- The friend who is bombarded with unspoken or unrealistic expectations.
And for all of you holding it together in the name of expectation
It is imperative that you show your vulnerability, share your struggles and stop trying to be accepted for something that is simply unattainable or not genuinely you.
It is better to be honest and not liked than to be liked and have to live up to something you aren’t.