Saved by Low Expectations
Is it ever helpful to lower our expectations of ourselves
My 30-year marriage ended when I was 60. Suddenly, my future looked very different than I had expected. I was faced with some big decisions. Was I going to give up and decide my life was over? Or did I want to try to create a new life for myself? What would that even look like? I had no idea. I only knew I wanted a meaningful, lively life.
One of the things I did to create my lively life was to re-explore some activities that I had loved when I was younger. I had been busy raising five daughters and teaching kindergarten, so it was hard to even remember what I used to do. Now I had time to listen to the urgings of my heart, watch for glimmers of interest, and see what sounded like fun.
I had been in plays in high school and loved the camaraderie of being part of a theatre group, and the rush of being in front of an audience. I had not done anything like that in more than 40 years. I felt a glimmer of interest about doing something with theatre, so when I saw that a beloved local theatre was offering storytelling classes for people 55 and older, I thought, “This might be it!” And I signed myself up.
At the first class, we all sat in a big circle facing each other. I was so self-conscious that I kept arranging and rearranging the position of my hands on my lap, thinking they looked weird. My heart was pounding. I seriously considered getting up and leaving, never to return. I was terrified of speaking in front of the group, sure that I would embarrass myself, or not be good enough at whatever we were going to do. I tried to breathe, to remind myself that this was something I was choosing to do, and that it would get easier. I thought again about the lively life I wanted to create, the friends I hoped to meet. I stayed.
Each week it got a little easier to go to the class, a little more fun, and I was little more relaxed. The people in the class were interesting and funny. I enjoyed talking with them and loved their heartfelt stories.
Then came the next big challenge: we were going to do a performance in the evening, in the theatre, in front of our friends and families. When I had practiced my story in front of my classmates, my knees wobbled, my voice shook, and it was hard to get a deep breath. I managed to do it anyway. But doing the performance would mean standing up in front of many more people, people with whom I had no relationship. I was petrified.
I was home alone all day, Sunday, the day before the performance. I paced and practiced my story. I thought repetitively about backing out of performing. “I don’t have to do this. Maybe just taking the class is a big enough step for me. Is it even helpful if it gets me so upset?” For most of the day, I was thinking I would text my teacher, saying I wasn’t coming. But I didn’t do it.
As evening approached, I started thinking about my classmates, and the stories that they had been preparing. I realized that I didn’t want to miss hearing them tell those stories. I didn’t want to miss this experience with them. To avoid that, I’d have to tell my story.
It occurred to me that part of what was making me so miserable was my own expectations. I expected myself to get up there and “wow” the audience, do a great job, amaze people. It was not a very realistic expectation for someone who hadn’t been on a stage in over 40 years. So I made a conscious decision to lower my expectations. I decided that if I managed to stand up in front of the people, and say some words, I would call it a win.
I told my story that night. I was shaking, but I definitely met my expectation of standing up and saying some words. I made the people laugh. I felt that rush. I enjoyed my classmates’ stories. And, wow, did that ever feel lively!