Thursday, December 6, 2012

Expectations of Control

This is number two in a series of I don't know how many installments, and I don't know how long it will take for me to tire myself out on this subject. I promise I won't only cover this topic over the next while, but it so happens this one follows the introductory post, here.

In 12-step programs, one of the hallmarks is identifying through a personal inventory the sources of resentment in a person's life and working through them. Often, the resentments lead a person to the behaviors that bring him to the 12-step program – substance abuse, eating disorders, co-dependence and so on. It stands to reason, then, that helping to sort through the underlying resentments helps a person to have the strength to deal with the addictive behavior in his life.

(Most 12-step programs will not try to cure a person of his addictions; indeed Step One makes clear that the addicted person cannot resolve the addiction on his own, and most people acknowledge that addiction is a life-long condition that requires management, like diabetes, rather than a cure.)

In my case – and this is true for many people who work through the steps (and I believe that most Latter-day Saints would benefit from working the steps, even though most of us are not addicts) – I discovered that nearly all of my resentments came from unmet expectations.

More specifically for me, I had an expectation about the outcome of events, I tried to control those outcomes, and I failed; resentment (and often more powerful emotions) followed.

One of the hallmarks of the “Anon” programs designed for family members of addicted loved ones (for instance, Al-Anon) is the giving up of expectations. It’s not unusual for a frustrated parent to say, “I expect to be treated with respect,” or “I expect my son to clean his room.” That construction raises a red flag because unmet expectations lead to resentment, and our lack of control over other people leads to unmet expectations. By establishing un-meetable expectations, we set ourselves up for recurring resentments.

A popular saying I’ve heard in 12-step recovery is this: You have a right to be treated with respect, but cannot expect it to happen. What that really means is that one has the right to choose how to react when he or she is not treated with respect, for instance.

Parents sometimes couch their family hopes and dreams in terms of expectations: We expect our children to study hard, to go to church, to serve missions, and so on. Experienced parents learn over time that they do not own their children’s future or their dreams. Just because I think my daughter should be a doctor does not mean she thinks she should be a doctor. And in the end, she will be the one choosing.

When I am successful at curbing my expectations, I am calmer about outcomes that are different from what I may have hoped for. I am more accepting and tolerant of other points of view. And I am happier.


  1. This was such a timely post for me. I've been thinking about this subject quite a lot lately and realized that in many of my prayers I've been demanding certain outcomes to problems and then getting upset when the Lord doesn't do exactly what I want. It is difficult to let go of that imaginary control and really exercise faith.

  2. Oh, Brenda, right you are! I like how you say it: "that imaginary control." We pretend to control what we really don't, and that is frustrating, isn't it?