Our lives are full of decisions and choices. While we may want every decision we take to be our own, quite often that isn’t the case.
Having grown up in a typical, middle-class family in India, my life resembled that of thousands of others around me. Immense academic pressure, a never-ending list of expectations from family, teachers, and society, and major life decisions being made by others were common experiences.
While walking the path that society had laid out for me, I began to waver. Grades dropped, happiness dipped, confidence plummeted. Every misstep was met by the near and dear with passionate attempts to “get me back on track”. Shame and the constant threat of “what will people say?” was woven into every conversation about why I needed to follow the crowd.
I didn’t realise this as a hormonal 16-year-old, but I was heading into a vicious cycle — not of frequently straying from the beaten path, but of being constantly pulled back to it.
After much introspection, brought on by the consequences of my decisions, I realized that I had made only one mistake in my life. Over and over again.
The Weight of Expectations
All through our lives, we act according to the expectations, perceived or otherwise, of others. Our family expects a certain level of obedience and excellence. Society expects us to hit specific milestones in life irrespective of our readiness or willingness.
In most cases, meeting these stringent expectations is rewarded with a peaceful home environment and general acceptance from society. There is less drama than if we were to question the status quo or choose to go our own way. Many people end up accepting their place in life just to keep the peace.
This carrot and stick approach, unfortunately, makes the love and support of family and society very conditional.
It also provides a great shield from ever having to take responsibility for our own lives. It prevents us from thinking independently, often plunging us into situations with far-reaching consequences that we are barely prepared for. But we do it to keep the peace.
Acting within the boundaries of expectations is seen as a way to earn the safety net of inclusion and acceptance. It gives us confidence that if things should go wrong, we will be spared from judgment because we were simply doing what was expected of us.
The Definition of Success
With the heavy burden of expectations also comes the rigid definition of success. We readily accept a pre-determined idea of what success looks like and end up burning away our best years fighting for something we don’t care about.
Many people unfortunately have their epiphany at an age that is considered quite ‘late’ by social standards. Late enough that they lose the will to do anything about it. They just accept that this is their life now — it’s too late to change.
These ‘milestones’ are so ingrained in our collective psyche that I continue to feel inadequate as I write this article, having an imaginary pissing contest with anyone who I perceive as more successful.
I have no basis for this perception apart from not matching up to the definition of success in ways that my colleagues and friends do. And I beat myself over it, every so often prompted by family members at how “behind” I am in life.
These milestones need not just be career-related. They also delve into the realm of extremely personal decisions such as marriage and parenthood. The definition of success calls for constant pressure from those around us to keep up — get married, get a mortgage, have children. Not because we want to. But because our biological clock is ticking and a random friend from high school has a 4-year-old already.
The sky-high expectations of family and the definition of success, seemingly set in stone, lead many people to make the same mistake that I did. The mistake of trying and failing at living a life envisioned by others.
There certainly are people who thrive in the competitiveness of having constant expectations to live up to. There are certainly those who are built for and thoroughly enjoy the well-trodden path marked by the milestones that society has set for us. We don’t all have to be rebels, constantly swimming against the tide.
But what we do have to be, and what I wasn’t — is honest.
- Your motivations need to be your own — Too many people wade into careers and life decisions they have no interest in simply because it is the next step in society’s success plan. Yes, sometimes conformity can be a good thing and rebellion without a cause is but a misguided affair. But be it going against the tide, living your life for others, or choosing to lead a life of quiet simplicity, what matters most is the motivations behind your decisions. It is important to do something because it means something to you, not because it is expected of you.
- Your decisions need to be your responsibility — Making decisions on your own terms holds you accountable to them, motivates you to put in the work, and allows you to learn from mistakes made. When the decisions become your responsibility and yours alone, you are truly free from the expectations and milestones set by someone else. You begin to realize that these timelines are in fact, not set in stone. You begin to give yourself time to achieve everything that you want to, slowly but steadily, free from the prying eyes of others.
- Short-term discomfort leading to long-term happiness — The realization that you want to do something different needs to be followed up with action and honest conversations. These conversations can make loved ones feel uncomfortable, disappointed, and upset. Avoiding these difficult conversations to keep the peace may stall temporary discomfort. But they will make you unhappy in the long-term. You can only keep others happy if you are happy yourself — put on your mask before helping others.
The weight of expectations and the rigid definitions of success can cause us to follow a set path, while simultaneously straying from what brings us happiness. There are many aspects of our lives that we cannot control. Sometimes, we can’t choose and have to do the best with what we have.
But no matter what the situation, it is important to be honest with yourself and make sure you do the things you do for the right reasons. As Frank Sinatra puts it so eloquently —
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
If you’re living a life that you’re told to live, are you really living at all? True freedom comes from being true to yourself.