This article first appeared on Your Tango and has been republished with permission.
I have very high standards. I insist that I am treated politely and with respect, and if people fail to meet my expectations, I cut them off. And yet, I realize that nothing and no one is perfect.
But lately, I’ve been wondering if my standards and expectations are too high — or if they’re even unrealistic.
How can I know the difference between having high standards and unrealistic expectations in relationships?
Where do I draw the line?
I believe that having high standards for how others treat you is a sign of healthy self-esteem, and it implies clarity about who you are and what you want. It conveys that you know your worthiness and what you deserve and are not afraid to ask for it and expect it done.
On the other hand, having unrealistic expectations for yourself and others in your life may be a sign of ignorant arrogance. (Sorry for being so direct.) Here’s how I see it, and I’m going to be blunt: Expecting someone else to be perfect all the time and to do things when and how you want them crushes the flexibility of human nature.
It’s a cry for control from someone who’s insecure, dependent on the perfection of others, and grasping to fill a gaping void of personal powerlessness.
How do I know this? Because being a perfectionist myself, I constantly struggle with crossing the fine line between my own high standards and unrealistic expectations. For me, this has always been a charged subject.
So here are some tips that have helped me yank myself back into the healthy zone of self-esteem — just in time, before ruining all my relationships:
Let’s say you are witnessing something that’s not up to your standards: Your guy is a pig — socks, chip crumbs, and papers are everywhere. And you’re a neat freak. So what do you do to resolve the conflict and save your relationship?
Before choosing between him and your standards, the first step is to soften your upset with the situation. (Notice that I’m separating the person from their behavior, since your partner has many behaviors which you like and approve.)
Don’t rush to judgment. Remember, a calm mind is a clear mind, open to more constructive solutions. We all know it’s not a good idea to make a decision on the spur of the moment when your adrenaline is pumping.
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It also helps to recognize that, nope, the person who’s upsetting you is far from perfect — and by the way, neither are you or I. Yes, he/she is doing something that’s challenging your views about how things should be — clean, orderly, and immaculate. However, it’s crucial to realize that in no way do orange peels and nut shells on the couch mean he doesn’t respect you, care about you, or even love you.
You see, it’s not your partner’s behavior that’s driving you up the wall, but rather your mental interpretation of what they’re doing.
That’s what’s really upsetting you. Psychologists say it’s our thoughts and mental opinions that create the way we feel. Isn’t that good to know? But if so, then now what?
Ask yourself a question: Can I live with this behavior and be okay?
That’s for you to decide. “It’s not such a huge deal after all,” you may mumble, while cleaning up his mess and realizing that he has more good qualities than not, and that you actually don’t mind cutting him some slack.
But on the other hand, you may feel, “NO! What he or she is doing does absolutely not work for me, and things must change." And of course, your preferences are valid and should be received and acknowledged. So what’s next?
Voicing your requests. Instead of focusing on what's not working, share with him what you’d like to see instead. The key to making him want to cooperate is by communicating to him from your confident self and making a polite request, not coming from some unrealistic expectation or accusing him of falling off our pedestal of perfection.
That’s crucially important. Because when he doesn’t feel scolded by his "mommy," he’ll be more willing to make a mental note and comply with your request.
Can you control what he will or will not do? No. But you can control your positive expectation, praising him for any slight sign of improvement (one of his socks did end up on the laundry room floor today, hooray!).
The more you praise and appreciate him for what he does right, while accepting him with all his flaws (the whole of him), the more he will do what you want. And that’s powerful.
Develop the habit of not taking things personally and realize that each of us behaves in accordance with our unique set of standards and beliefs.
When you understand this, you can move toward acceptance of both others and your own imperfect nature.
And so, you must develop a sense of personal responsibility to find that silver lining within. The intricate balance between healthy self-esteem and an unrealistic demand for perfection.
How do you know you’ve found it? You’re confident, calm, and determined; you’re in control.
It comes from having the power to decide what suits you best right now.
You are not lowering your standards. You’re simply deciding what works and what doesn’t, and then taking appropriate action.
After all, what’s the main reason — the core emotional need — for your (or my) high standards anyway? It’s to feel like we matter, like we are important; that our needs are acknowledged and that we are loved.
But we can feel this way any time we choose. Our need for high standards can always be met on an internal, emotional level — in spite of a messy house, neighbor noise, or other obstacles that challenge us through the day.
And arriving at this deep knowing and maintaining it can become your new, “realistic” expectation.
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