Great Expectations: Set Yourself Free

It’s not easy to let go. Think about how many songs tell us that (but really, though, if you don’t believe me just check out this playlist for a small sampling of songs about how real the struggle is). Letting go is hard.

When our wants and needs change (or not even necessarily change, but simply become more clear to us), it’s not always easy to let go. Moving away from what we’ve become used to doing for so long can be challenging. Not only that, but the people who are used to us doing what we’ve always done sometimes find it very difficult to see us begin to do things differently- especially when we’re no longer doing things their way.

Not surprisingly, people tend to like getting their way. Even if we don’t go about it aggressively or in a bad-natured way, when we’ve had a strong influence over somebody for a period of time, it can be hard to let go. And so, if I stop relying so much on the input of others and start informing my decisions with my own thoughts and desires, this can cause tension within certain relationships.

And boy, has it.

For someone with OCD-fueled self-doubt, the prospect of becoming independent has been both invigorating and terrifying all at once. Having been bullied and ostracized to the point of complete social withdrawal between middle school and high school, an immensely significant part of me (read: “basically my entire personality”) spent years screaming to be set free for others to see.

As a result of said bullying, though, an expectation was communicated by my peers that I would either be silent and invisible and thus left alone, or speak and be seen in any way and be ridiculed. I became the quiet, unassuming guy who would never assert himself into a situation nor be assertive when drawn into a situation. No, what I thought or said or did didn’t really matter. It was always about what everyone else wanted me to do.

For years I suppressed my true self- my quirky sense of humor, my creativity and artistic ability, my inquisitive nature, and my thoughtfulness of others. They were still there, but the message was sent loud and clear: “You’re not to show any of those things.”

I still haven’t told my parents the extent of what I went through during those years. Maybe I should have. But as I mentioned once before, when I was diagnosed with OCD, we decided to keep it a secret because of the fear that nobody would understand. I guess I just became programmed to keep things like this a secret.

So to do the math here, I was hiding my “bad” side (the anxiety-ridden OCD patient) and my good side (my creative, curious, quirky and witty personality). I was basically non-existent to most of the world around me. But damn, all of that stuff was very real on the inside, and it was dying to be set free.

Slowly but surely, I came out of my shell in spite of my anxiety and in spite of all the expectations others had for me to keep to myself. I became part of a big group of friends. I began to date. I went to college and even moved on campus after a semester of commuting from home. I became involved in clubs, even started one of my own and served as the president for a year. I wrote for the school paper. And maybe the most foreign, yet thrilling thing of all was that for a period of time I was actually what I would consider “popular” among my peers.

All of that took almost ten years. Nearly ten years building my confidence to the point where I felt I could actually show my personality. Even with all that progress, though, I continued to find myself in relationships in which I would bend over backward going out of my way to do things simply because I felt that I was expected to. In my mind, that was how I could get people to “like” me; to stop would mean that they would become upset, they would stop liking me, and that I would lose them.

I knew that didn’t logically make sense. But having spent so long in the shadows feeling inadequate and unworthy of the approval of others, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that’s what I had to do to keep people interested in me. So, I would still defer to the expectations I perceived a significant other would have of me, usually at my own expense.

In almost all of these relationships, I sacrificed a part of my own identity for the sake of being with somebody.

This became my “new” OCD. The obsessive compulsive tapping and other numbered patterns of my childhood had become relationship rituals- a strict adherence to almost anything with sentimental value and a non-existent margin for error. I had to be the perfect boyfriend.

This was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, there was the anxiety I felt anytime I would do something to upset the other person. On the other hand, in pleasing them, I felt anxiety about ignoring many of the things I wanted within the relationship. To boot, I basically did the exact opposite things with my family at home, most likely in an attempt to regain some of the individuality I wasn’t allowing myself to have elsewhere.

It took another five years before it started to sink in that I could still be thoughtful and still go above and beyond for a significant other without sacrificing some of the things that I wanted within the relationship. When I finally started realizing this, it was like a light had been switched on. I began to understand that it’s OK to stand firm on what I believe in and not to let others change my mind simply on the basis of feeling badly about disagreeing with them. I began to distinguish between what I wanted and what I was only doing because I thought it was expected of me.

As I mentioned earlier, though, communicating and asserting my individuality has been a challenge at times because again, when people are used to having an influence for so long, it’s not always easy for them to let that go.

Now, I’m not a parent yet, and I’m sure one day I’ll see the other side of it fully for myself, but growing into adulthood and finding myself and inner voice has created some unpleasant interactions at times. As I’ve begun to make decisions in my life about my career, my living situation, and my future that are different from what my parents probably envisioned in many ways, this has been a difficult transition.

I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a child grow up, or what it’s like to see them become independent. What I can say, however, is that although I’ve asserted my independence, I’m not alone. This part is critical and is ultimately the culmination of this series.

It’s been said that “no man is an island entire of itself” (John Donne), and there are undoubtedly many ways to interpret this quote. For me, I believe this closely resembles my philosophy about health- that no one element of life exists in isolation. Everything we do in some way affects some part of us, and that is something that is well worth being aware of.

To interpret this in terms of my own social health and well-being, I take this to mean that while I’ve finally found my independent voice, I am still not alone. Yes, I’ve broken away from the expectations that so many others have had for me in my life. This includes my family, my friends, my former teachers, colleagues, and significant others. In doing so, I’ve learned more about what I expect of myself:

I expect my OCD to always be a significant part of the way that I am.

I expect to make my OCD work just as hard for me as I work for it. This means that I also expect that I will exhaust myself pursuing things that I feel are worthwhile, because I’ll do so in a very meticulous way, as per my OCD.

I expect to be bored by anything that doesn’t make me think and use my mind.

I expect to pursue many different opportunities because I have many different strengths that lend themselves to different things.

I expect not to settle for all things logical and practical, especially if they don’t also make me happy.

I expect to struggle at times when happiness eludes me in my work.

I expect myself to be driven to the point of finding fulfillment in the work that I do.

I expect not to know the exact job title I want to hold by the end of my career, but I also expect to do my best to be OK with that, as long as I’ve continued to grow.

I expect to worry every now and then that I’m not pleasing others. I also expect to find ways to be reminded to snap out of it. 

I expect to continue working on communicating my individuality in constructive ways, even if I expect this to take a while longer, particularly with my family.

I expect to still be the thoughtful, patient, kind, and understanding person I’ve been in my relationships as husband to my wife and father to my future children.

To me, one of the beautiful things about these expectations is something beyond the fact that I can identify them to begin with, and that over time, I’ve actually begun to accept them. Beyond that, another amazing thing is that I’ve found somebody who not only sees these expectations I have for myself, but understands, accepts, and supports me 100% as I try to live up to my own expectations. In working to finally find my own individual self and recognizing what it was that I wanted for me, I came to find her.

Just a few hours before this article went live, I married this woman. She is, in every way, the piece of my life that had been missing for all those years. She appreciates and loves me for me, and gives me everything she has, in the same way I try to give her everything I have. It’s truly amazing. I love her with every fiber of my being, more than I can ever fully describe in words.

If you’ve found your individuality, I encourage you to embrace it and communicate it in a way that is constructive and positive. If you’re still seeking it, I’m here, rooting for you to find it. I encourage you to not just act solely based on what everyone else expects of you. Discover what it is you expect for yourself, then stand up for it and set yourself free.

Those who don’t understand will need to find their own way to understand or let go- at least to some extent. Those who do understand will accept you for who you truly are. You can’t control what others will do, but regardless, you owe it to yourself to be who you truly are.

Don’t be afraid.
I believe in you.
I hope that you believe in you, too.

What expectations do you have of yourself?
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