The Relief of Lowered Expectations


I’m always ambitious about my plans for the summer. Since I’m a teacher, summer is the time to catch up on everything I’ve put on hold during the hectic schedule of the school year. It’s also when I tackle big projects, both personal and career-related.

My list usually involves a lot of “house” goals (cleaning, organizing), teaching goals (research, organizing), and writing goals (blog posts, writing for other publications, my book project). This summer, making my house more fit for two, there’s been more of the first category than usual. There’s also been a lot of logistical tasks, changing to my married name (more on that decision later), combining financial resources, etc. And then I also agreed to teach a graduate course in the fall for the first time ever.

Unfortunately, summer is also a time when I typically struggle mentally and emotionally. My long to-do list and my seasonal depression don’t mix so well. This summer started off with a particularly terrible combination: unusually high expectations for what I would accomplish, and unusually deep and paralyzing anxiety.

When I’m in a pervasively difficult place emotionally, simple tasks start to feel enormous and overwhelming. When sending an e-mail or running an errand take a great deal of motivation and energy, complicated things like sorting through records or organizing a closet become nearly impossible.

So, I had to slash my expectations for myself. Instead of huge progress on several projects, each day became a small to-do list of baby steps and achievable goals: Put away one basket of stuff. E-mail this one person. Clean one bathroom. Exercise (that always has to be on there). Write this one section of the course syllabus.

It’s been a day-by-day process (that has also involved contact with my counselor and my doctor), but I have realized this lowering of expectations has several effects:

  1. Small steps become palpable victories. Knowing how incredibly difficult it was just a few weeks ago to do the smallest of tasks, I can celebrate accomplishing things like making the bed or emptying the dishwasher or calling to schedule an appointment. Instead of being overwhelmed at the seeming impossibility of all I think I should be doing, I can be proud of myself for doing what I can.
  2. I don’t judge myself in the leftover and in-between hours. Having a literal checklist of tasks I know I can complete gives me the freedom to be unproductive when I’m not working on the list. Sometimes, this means wrapping myself tightly in a blanket and shutting out the world for awhile, and I’m ok with that for now.
  3. Priorities come into play. Even though my writing is very important to me, all of my current projects are self-driven. In other words, I don’t have any deadlines or anyone who will be checking up on it. I’d hoped to make more publishing contacts for my book, submit some specific ideas of articles for other publications, and, at the very least, post more regularly on this blog. But other things have been more pressing, and it just hasn’t been the time for concentrated effort on my writing. And that makes me really sad. Even as I’m hopeful sometime in the near future will be different, I’m still working on accepting that part of this season.

It’s like when you’re really sick or too tired to keep your eyes open, and you realize you just can’t do all you would normally be able to do, much less all you expect yourself to do. Although that realization brings disappointment and frustration, it also brings relief. And maybe the fact that you’ve gotten to a place where you’re so depressed or sick or tired is the very sign that relief is what you needed.

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