My Expectations; Your Expectations
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2018 (re-written February 25, 2021)
The Gestalt Prayer by Fritz Perls succinctly describes how we give and receive in a complex social world without losing our autonomy while simultaneously honoring the autonomy of others
The Gestalt Prayer was written by Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, in the late 1960's. I generally resist short dogmatic statements that universally define how we should live. I maintain this stance with the Gestalt Prayer as well. However, I find great wisdom in this fifty-six word prayer that can nudge us forward, improving our relationships by following this counsel and compassionately accepting differences.
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.
(Fritz Perls, "Gestalt Therapy Verbatim", 1969)
Over the years, now moving into the silver lining of life, my expectations have transformed—more curiosity in others and less surety of how they will act. We all have expectations—hopes and dreams. Relationships are especially laced with expectations. We build trust around them; much of the predictableness of futures depends on our partners staying steady and loyal. Couples can’t enjoy peace without reasonable expectations—without consistency life becomes chaotic, full of anxiety; commitment and security build on a history of fulfilled expectations.
Does the Gestalt Prayer Suggest No Expectations of Others?
Is Fritz Perls’s Gestalt Prayer suggesting we dump expectations of others? I don’t think so. He artfully reminds of human freedoms. Our expectations aren’t moral imperatives; they are hopes that may or may not be filled. If our satisfaction depends on fulfillment of all our expectations, we will be disappointed. Likewise, other’s expectations are not our moral imperatives.
If to achieve another person’s acceptance, we must abandon our autonomy, frantically striving to fulfill their every whim, we lose our selves.
Accurate prediction, however, is an essential skill to manage limited resources. A chaotic life routinely overwhelms and depletes energy, leading to psychological distress and physical exhaustion.
Predictions are shaped by reasonable expectations. Relationships are forged by spoken and unspoken agreements. Fulfilling these agreements creates trust. We know our partner will fulfill their side of the bargain, and we can make predictions based upon this trust.
When we discover a relationship, where agreements, expectations and trust work together, it's magical—beautiful. "You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful."
Gestalt Therapy: A Psychotherapy that focuses on personal responsibility, considering the environmental and social contexts (complexity) that influences a person's behavior, and their behaviors to adapt.
When a Person Doesn't Honor Commitments
In our ego-centric world, we sometimes forget that our joys and pains are not greater than the joys and pains of others. We must honor individual freedoms. We must also maintain the boundaries that protect our selfhood.
There’s no acceptance found where individualism is denied. Autonomy, therefore, is the right to disregard agreements. "I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine."
Broken agreements hurt, damage trust, and chaotically destroy predictions. We are free to respond to the broken agreement. Do we want to remain in a relationship that continually fails to meet our expectations? Perhaps, our expectations our misguided, or, maybe, our partner isn't willing to compromise. If not, "if not, it can't be helped."
"Our expectations aren’t moral imperatives; they are hopes that may or may not be filled."
Compromise and Relationships
Mutual acceptance permits individuality, humbly appreciating a partner’s personal preferences that deviate from our personal likes and wants—and quirks. Saying, "I don’t need to live up to your expectations," doesn’t imply rejecting compromise. We need autonomy but also connection. Belonging requires attunement to others, being sensitive to their desires. And this works both ways.
The strength of a relationship doesn’t depend on lack of differences, perfectly aligned expectations, but on each partners’ ability to enjoy the peculiarities the other partner brings to the relationship—even oddities we struggle to understand. We achieve a delicate balance between autonomy and accommodation.
Perhaps, this balance is my expectation in a partner, not a moral imperative. I am free to find a partner that shares these values.
See Compromise in Relationships for more on this topic
Unexamined, we may wrongly seek independence and unconditional commitment. These mismatching wants create an internal conflict. This is unrealistic; we can’t be unconditionally accepted while remaining stubbornly independent, rejecting any differences as ill minded and inferior. Our narcissistic expectations are doomed to disappoint. Expectations that we can act as we please and still be unconditionally forgiven is misguided; only marginally fulfilled by a codependent partner fearing abandonment more than intimate connection.
See Unconditional Love and Fear of Abandonment for more on these topics
Abandoning the Self
Conversely, we shouldn’t unconditionally conform. Not conforming has costs and benefits. When a partner, friend or social group doesn’t permit individuality, we should recognize this imbalance will likely bring painful drama.
See the Need to Please for more on this topic
"Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day-to-day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life."
Fulfilling the Expectations of Both Partners
Healthy relationships don't perfectly fulfill expectations of both partners but strives to do so. Establishing a collaborative pattern of fulfilling needs (of both partners) builds trust, and demonstrates mutual concern for each other's wellness.
We desire relationships because they fill many needs that can't be satisfied alone. If a relationship continually fails to satisfy basic needs, discouraging hope, the relationship becomes burdensome. Trust (because of a pattern of fulfilled expectations) that a partner will be there, supporting and fulfilling needs creates security and psychological wellness.
Fritz Perls’ statements don’t demonize expectations, suggesting trust that a lover will fulfill some expectations leads to sorrowful disappointment. The Gestalt Prayer serves as a gentle reminder that others aren’t servants to our needs. Others are individuals with their own needs, hopes and dreams. We seek joy but shouldn’t expect “our” joy to be the purpose of others.
In relationships, we commit to help each other travel similar but individual paths. These partnerships require some common expectations but also healthy respect for differences. When we see others as individuals—not extensions of ourselves, we can balance complex human interaction.
We must repeatedly and painstakingly decide between autonomy and belongingness, sacrificing some personal desires, while maintaining some personal boundaries. The fine balance is the work of a life time. When we find a person willing to work together for this balance, continually expressing mutual respect for each other's autonomous journey, the love is beautiful, lifting two spirits beyond what they could achieve individually. In a gestalt way, the whole equals more than the sum of the parts.
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