Overheard in a college hallway: “I am who I am! I cannot be responsible for his expectations of me.”
The tone of voice was stressed, angry. The speaker was obviously struggling in some relationship where she felt the pain of believing she was expected to measure up to some standard with which she did not agree, or believed she could not meet. Her anger at not being accepted for that of which she felt capable seemed fed by her guilt that she had not measured up to the standards of someone important to her.
Or, was I projecting? Was I reading too much into a simple declaration, simply because it resonated so deeply? Who among us has not at some time felt the pangs of inadequacy, having somehow failed to be the person that a parent, teacher, friend or spouse thought us to be? More important, who of us is not guilty of verbally projecting our expectations on another in a judgmental fashion, capable of stripping the other of self-confidence and a sense of belonging.
As the Academic Dean of a small college in an rural area where students received a suboptimal education, as both student and faculty advocate I was often called upon to mediate the issues arising when faculty from more cosmopolitan backgrounds failed to recognize the intelligence and potential of their students, judging them only on their failure to have been adequately prepared for college level work. Faculty would often disparage the students publically, claiming they would not work, could not learn, and should not be in college. Their expectations of the students were as low as their claims, and the relationships between those faculty and their students were broken and painful. Neither group expected anything good to come from the other.
Yet my own experience with these students was that on the whole (of course there were exceptions – there always are) the more I expected from my students and the more I recognized their exceptional qualities, the harder they worked and the more they succeeded. Further, they returned my love and respect for them, and for each other. The same was true for my students in Africa, as well as for my students in a large city-based university.
The principle, I believe, crosses cultures and generations. I first heard it stated from a young OB-GYN physician who had been charged with overseeing residents, interns and patients in a central city hospital clinic. I had the privilege of working for him as he changed the appearance, the attitudes, and the quality of care at that clinic. Where it had been said patients were “herded like cattle” into the clinic area itself, and then into exam rooms where they were prodded, talked about over their heads between the teaching and learning physicians as though the patient was a dumb animal, where the environment itself was dirty and depressing—there was change. In an attractive, welcoming environment where every patient was treated as well as paying patients in a private doctor’s office, we were able to observe the change from surly, quarrelsome and often unwashed patients to patients who were no different from those in any doctor’s office, where they trusted their caregivers and returned the respect they were given.
What that young physician believed and lived by, and helped everyone around him to emulate, was the statement he always made: “People will respect themselves and act accordingly if they are treated with respect and dignity.” Most did just that.
What I told my faculty members was “These students will live up to—or DOWN to—your expectations. Either outcome will be elicited by your treatment of them.”
Expectations make us or break us. Expressed in love as realistic possibilities that honor and dignify the humanity of the other, they can inspire. Expressed as a judgment of the failures of the other, or as a goal absolutely not in accord with the dreams and goals of the other, they are destructive. And that includes the expectations we have of ourselves.