Anxiety About Other Peoples' Expectations

Many of the most anxiety-producing situations involve other peoples' expectations of you and how you respond to them. The problem with trying to respond to other peoples' expectations is that for the most part, you're responding to your own ideas. Sometimes people tell you what they expect, but most of the time you're stressing yourself out because of what you think someone expects of you.

People like you and me — people prone to anxiety — perceive the world differently than others. We perceive more danger, we see things to worry about, and we often interpret unthreatening events as threatening. That's what anxiety does.

Jimmy and Jane are going to have dinner at a restaurant with their friends tonight. Jimmy is ready to go and Jane is still getting ready. Jimmy is sitting down reading a magazine, quite content. But Jane is prone to anxiety and she's stressing. She knows Jimmy is waiting. She feels the silence as ominous. She is hurrying as fast as she can. She feels pressured. She moves too quickly and drops a glass of water on the floor and it breaks. Now she's really frantic and quickly cleans it up, tripping over herself because she's trying to move so quickly.

She imagines in her mind that Jimmy is out there fuming. She knows he hates to be late. She's trying to move as fast as she can. She is really sorry and feels anxious, but she's still got about ten minutes before she will be ready, and she can't stand the pressure any more. Finally she rushes into the other room and blurts out: "Why don't you just go without me! I'll never be ready on time!" As she finishes this statement, she rounds the corner only to see that Jimmy has dozed off and her statement has woken him up!

All the stress was in her head. Not that she made it up. Jimmy has told her before he likes to arrive early to places. A few times he has expressed impatience with her. But she remembers those times very well and doesn't remember the other times, which in reality are more numerous, when he wasn't bothered at all by her lateness. Past stressful moments are easier to remember for an anxiety-prone person than nonstressful moments.

What should Jane do? She doesn't want to stress out so much. First, she can ask Jimmy at the time. When you assume you know what another is thinking, you can ask them if it's true. There is always the possibility that when she asks, Jimmy is in fact feeling very impatient but lies and says he's fine. That's one of the reasons for assuming — people have a tendency to be nice and thus not be completely honest. But if you ask sincerely, most people most of the time will tell you the truth, so the responses you get are more likely to be true than the assumptions you make in your head.

Second, she can thank Jimmy for being patient.

And third, she could solve the problem. If this has happened before, Jane is aware that it takes her longer to get ready than it takes Jimmy. She could solve that problem so it is no longer a problem. She could start getting ready earlier, for example. Then she wouldn't be running late, so it wouldn't produce the extra adrenaline in her body.

The key thing to remember is that much of the stress you might be feeling is coming from your assumptions of what other people expect of you, and handle the situations accordingly. Less anxiety will be your reward.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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