The Toxic Tide of Expectations
How high expectations can sabotage your self-esteem.
I had a friend who ended her own life.
Before that — she and I lived in our college town, which we called Hell — she had the lowest self-esteem I ever saw.
The day we met, L telegraphed self-hatred silently with her get-me-outta-here gait, cute shoes clicking swiftly across the office floor, espresso-brown eyes downcast. During our first conversation, L said in an almost-bragging tone, "No one can stand to be around me" — except her boyfriend, who would not let L walk around their house without wearing full makeup.
I spent that day wondering why L disliked herself. She was pretty and smart. She grew up in a fancy house in a place I considered paradise. She wrote extremely well. Granted, I disliked myself too. But — as I would have said back then — I was oafish and only mildly skilled.
She never said I hate myself because of X and Y and Z. She did not analyze, process or blame, but spoke as if self-hatred was what she deserved — for writing novels publishers rejected, choosing mean (and sometimes married) boyfriends, abandoning hobbies she had borrowed money from her parents to pursue.
They popped up in every conversation, as if they were sipping tea beside us at the café or arranging cushions on her couch.
"My dad said I should be ashamed of working for minimum wage."
"My mom said when I changed my major to creative writing, she lost hope."
I never met them in real life. They lived thousands of miles away. Her dad was proud of his accomplishments. I think his extramarital affairs affected how L viewed relationships.
She always said "my mom" in the same singsong tone, starting out baby-soft and reverent, like someone eating angel cake, then languorously rolling out the O almost into a second syllable. Then pausing after ending the word as if awed, as one does after saying "bomb" or "doom."
"My mom said my sisters are mad at me because I sent them all cheap Christmas cards."
"My mom said I have only one good feature: my kissable lips. She called them kissable."
"My mom said she would only keep paying my rent if I promise to stop betting on horses."
"My mom asked why I can't seem to succeed."
In the rejection letters L received — never a contract, never an acceptance — editors lauded her lustrous writing but lamented that her stories "do not suit our platforms at this time."
She said her parents wanted her to make them proud.
"My mom said I should remember how much they spent on private schools."
"My mom said if I want to be a writer I should write bestsellers like Dean Koontz."
"My mom said one of my sisters has started med school and the other is engaged."
L and her sisters learned about each other only through their mother, because they were not on speaking terms.
"My mom told my sister I said her fiancé looks fat."
"My mom said my sister called me a bum."
As I do every May, because this is her birthday month, I Googled L. Five years ago, long after L had left this world, her name popped up in an obituary for her mom. This year, it reappeared in an obituary for her dad.
The obit said he was not only a successful businessman and community member but also a chess master, a multilingual decorated veteran, a classical composer whose works are performed on major stages. It said his wife, an established painter, had predeceased him.
L never told me all this about them.
But, reading it, I realized that her parents' world-class résumés fueled the expectations that always swung over L like spiky pendulums, chased her down every dark hallway like wolves, dimmed every sunny sky and tainted every drop she drank.
Like millions more, L measured herself by those expectations and those of the boyfriends who demanded makeup, rapt attention, fresh-baked scones. She saw herself in mirrors made of the desires of others, and eventually could not stand what she saw.