8 ways to free yourself from toxic expectations

“If I don’t do it, it won’t get done” this was a mantra in my head well after all the lights were off, and everyone else had gone home. People just expected me to do it. I was after all the person who “cared the most”.

This pattern of thinking followed the usual catastrophic pattern: 

  1. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.
  2. If it doesn’t get done the student will not have what they need.
  3. If they don’t have what they need they will fail school.
  4. If they fail school they will fail at life 
  5. Oh my god, they’re going to die in the gutter and it will be all my fault! 

If you’ll notice, not one of these expectations were actually placed on me by another person. I did the catastrophizing all on my own. 

Maybe you feel burdened by an array of expectations as well. These may be coming from parents, students, administrators, colleagues, or society.  Some of these are in fact requirements. You are expected to show up to work in clothes. Not meeting this expectation will yield poor results indeed. 

Other expectations are not in fact so enforced. Those you may be inflicting entirely on yourself. 

If you’re feeling a little crushed under expectations, below you will find a short guide to help you sort them out.  

1. Be clear about your job tasks


The first thing to do is to learn what the minimum is for you. Let us never say there is nothing to be learned from solid C students. Knowing the minimum can seriously save you stress. 

Since most of my unrealistic expectations were coming from work, that was a good place to start. You may find a list of job requirements in your teacher handbook. If you don’t or you are still unclear, this would be a great question to take to an administrator. 

An example of this is communication home to parents. Most schools require you to engage with families in the course of your job. Perhaps, you have been calling daily at a rate of 5-10 families a day. This is certainly A+ teaching, but if it is a huge burden it can be impairing your overall teaching. Clarifying how often your school expects you to communicate can help you. It can show you what you’re doing in greater context. It may well be they only expect you to communicate when there is an issue or at a rate of 5 families a week. 

This clarification can help you sort out what is your own personal expectations for your work, and that of your actual employer. 

If you find that you want to put in the extra, you at least now know you are fulfilling your own needs and not theirs. It takes the task from a “have to do” to a “want to do”. You give the control back to yourself.

2. Take on extra things you want to do


Great, now you know what is expected for real by other people. These are the things that you have to do in order to stay employed. 

However, you are not basic. You want to be extra. That brings us to extra credit, a wealth of additional expectation and stress. 

It is a good thing to be helpful. It is potentially good for you to do additional things that speak to you at work. They can lead to promotions and different, exciting roles at your school. 

Sign up to work on side projects, but only do the ones you want to. Don’t let people guilt you into taking on things you don’t want to do. Remember, this is not your job, it is a favor and should be treated as such. 

Remember, that you always wield control over these because you were the one to agree to them. It is ok to give them up if they don’t turn out as you expected. You are not stuck in them. 

So you agreed to co-sponsor that club and the other sponsor is a total deadbeat who does nothing to help? It’s ok to politely bow out or get another co-sponsor. It is even ok to confront the other sponsor about how this is not meeting YOUR expectations. 

That’s the nice thing about voluntary expectations: you control them. Write your own definitions of what success looks and feels like to you.

3. Be able to say no guilt-free

Now that we’ve established that you have free will when it comes to these expectations, we can use a truly great word:

From Dictionary.com

As we established, you are in charge of everything you encounter that is extra. 

If something doesn’t bring you joy. Say no.

If something drains you. Say no.

If you don’t have time. Say no.

If you simply don’t want to. Say no. 

You can say no to yourself too. Sometimes we ramp up expectations on ourselves. You can say no to you and revise your expectations. 

You owe no one an explanation. You don’t need to be sorry. It is your time and what you choose to do with it is up to you. 

If someone tries to guilt you into it, and you chose to do it, you are still choosing. I would advise, not allowing people into your life that make you feel pressured or forced, but you chose them too. 

In the end, feel free to say no to whatever you want, whenever you want. There is more than enough that is not in your control. It can feel rather good to exercise unquestioned control over something. 

4. Know what is in your control


Speaking of what you can’t control, there’s a lot of it. 

Teachers often want to think of themselves as in control of things. They, after all, control their classes. They have total control of student success. They decide who gets to use the bathroom and when for goodness sake! (By the way, yikes). 

In actuality though, you don’t have that much control. You don’t control board policies, you probably didn’t decide what standards to teach in your class. You probably can’t control the school’s start time. You can’t keep a student from having a really horrible home life that bleeds into your classroom. 

I could keep going on and on, but that would be tiresome. The point is that there are some things you control and then there are some things you don’t. 

I often felt I needed to take responsibility for trying to change some of these things. I felt I needed to explain them or apologize for them to students and parents. 

I was taking on expectations for being the one to “fix” these things. This is as laughably impossible as me taking responsibility for changing the weather. If the people in control of these things wanted them changed, they would be. That would be with or without my helpful suggestions.

You never need to take responsibility for things that have nothing to do with you. If there is a bad policy at your school that impacts a family, send them to the proper channels to address it. Don’t say you’re sorry. Don’t feel bad. Only worry about is in your control. 

5. Let stuff go that is not in your control


Letting go is extremely hard. It can feel like you’re giving up. You can feel guilty for not even trying to right the wrongs. 

This is in fact garbage thinking. 

Letting go is absolutely the correct response to all the things you can’t change. To do otherwise is to self-injure. 

If you spend all your time fixating and spinning your wheels you’re less likely to have time. You could use that time for the things that you need to do or want to do. You are instead becoming more likely to burn yourself out and feel poorly about the world around you. 

Don’t spend your time tilting at windmills and be a martyr about it. Embrace your inner Frozen sing-along. 

If you can’t change it: Let. That. Shit. Go. 

6. Listen to voices you trust


“Those that mind never matter and those that matter never mind”.

“Unless they’re paying your bills, pay those bitches no mind”.

These are two of my favorite axioms about who’s voices you let in your head. 

Some people will appoint themselves as your keeper. They may have a laundry list of things they feel you should be doing, and are happy to share that with you. 

A person that I worked with for many years had oh so many additional duties. These duties actually belonged to them, but they felt I was much better suited to them. For a long time, I let that guide my action. I let myself get drawn into those chores, even though I didn’t want to do them. 

Some people you have to listen to because they’re paying your bills. You really ought to at least attempt to do as your administrator or other supervisors say. You don’t have to let them inside your head. You don’t have to let their opinion of you color your own, but it’s fine to put their expectations on your to-do list. 

A caution though: If they are being unreasonable or abusive don’t take it. Use the channels that exist in your school to stop that behavior. 

There are other people who you may work with or have in your life that you like and respect. They may have expectations of you too, but that’s where the first axiom comes into play. If they belong in your life it is because they like and care for you too. They never mind if you aren’t at your best and can’t meet some expectations. If they care about you, they’ll adjust. 

Then we have the third group of people: those who are not paying your bills and don’t matter. These people you may see daily. You may even be related to them. You don’t need to listen to, or cater to anything they may feel about how you use your time. You owe them nothing. 

7. Take a breath and walk away

Take a break

Sometimes, you can feel overloaded by expectations. At these times, it is best to take a break. 

If you are doing battle with the forces of impossible expectations,  you have my permission to walk away. You can make it for as long as you need. 

You may only need a moment to get some air and use the restroom. You may need to go home early and forget this day. You may need to take a long weekend off and figure this all out. 

Check in with yourself. How are you feeling? What do you need?

There is nothing wrong with a time-out. Decide what really has to be done and what is actually extra, say no to some of it and then come back refreshed. If you feel overwhelmed no work of any quality will be produced. 

I promise that life will go on without you. 

8. Have an outlet 


Sorting through what you need to do, what you want to do and what you feel like you should do is a lot. 

It’s the kind of task best tackled with a friend in the know. A teacher-friend can help you figure out what is nice to do versus what needs doing. They know your woes and can help you come up with solutions. 

Maybe there are ways to simplify and streamline what you’re doing. A good sounding board colleague or mentor can really help with that. 

Having an outlet for your concerns is invaluable. 

I suggest having these important strategy sessions during a happy hour. You can be more strategic away from the insurmountable pile of work. 

Hopefully, this helps! Most of the time, when we are overwhelmed by expectations the call is coming from inside of the building. Once you get better at controlling your time you’ll find that meeting expectations is a snap!

How are you doing with managing expectations? Let us know in the comments!

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