Whose life is it anyway?

Before we go anywhere today, I’d like you to pause for a minute or two.

Think back to a time in your life when you remember others having expectations of you.

Perhaps you felt they expected you to settle down and have a family?

Or maybe you can recall certain people expecting you to pursue some particular line of work?

Please just take a moment to recall whether you experienced any of these kinds of expectations.

If you did – what were they? Who held them?

+ + + + + + +

Okay, we’re back.

Maybe you recalled a specific incidence of doing something (or not doing it) largely because of perceived pressure from other people.

I know I do, and I have a theory that talking through my own situation might help cast some light on your own circumstances.

Almost exactly 39 years ago (it was August 7th, 1979) I returned home to the UK after a fabulously exciting and enriching year, living and studying in California.

I’d won a scholarship from Rotary International. It covered the costs of spending a year at art school, after I’d graduated with a science degree in the UK.

And what a brilliant year that was.

I took every class I could – graphic design, printmaking, video production, jewellery design, woodworking – you name it, I signed up for it.

Then, to cap it all, I spent the last few months of my visa’s duration working for a travelling funfair (a carnival, they call it in the US) experiencing the many delights of rural Northern California, while also picking up the down and dirty basics of selling as I ran my own sideshow.

In my video class, we programmed an early personal computer (a TRS-80) and I’ve since realised I lived less than 25 miles from where the two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were just starting Apple Computer, a business that 39 years later is worth a trillion dollars.

I was living in a part of the world with huge potential, in so many ways.

Leaving California was a wrench but – well – my visa had expired, plus the Rotary people had asked that I visit some of their clubs back in Britain to talk about my experiences.

I was of course excited to see family and friends when I got back, and for a while I carried my California experience with me, although, along with my suntan it soon began to fade.

Please don’t get me wrong. I know I lived a full, and rich life back in the UK, with jobs in advertising, and the challenging fun of starting and running a London ad agency myself. I’m grateful.

But, as I’ve documented elsewhere, for 30 years I also struggled with depression, severe at times, not even asking for help until I was 50.

When I’ve talked with my Mum about my battles, she’s fairly sure that I began having these emotional health problems when I got back to the UK from California, at the age of 22.

Now, who knows if I might have been less affected if I’d stayed in the USA? Impossible to know, now.

It’s interesting, however, to reflect a little on why I didn’t.

In the thoughts I gathered before writing for you today, I noted that settling down back in the UK was probably what was expected of me, but I then added an “I felt” – “I think *I felt* that it was expected of me.”

Next, I asked myself three questions, and I’d encourage you to do the same about a perhaps parallel time in your own life:

1. Who do you believe expected a particular behaviour/decision from you?

2. Can you be absolutely certain that they really did expect it, or might you have jumped to a somewhat false conclusion? Did you maybe just think they expected it?

3. Lastly, if it actually was true that others genuinely did expect things of you, how much did that really matter?

In my own case, the people at Rotary did indeed expect me to return to the UK, but the truth is that my responsibilities to them were pretty much wrapped-up after just six months of talks at lunches, dinners, and conferences.

What about other people? Did they expect me to return to the UK?

Well, it’s not easy to know.

It would be nice to think that some had hoped I’d be back, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’m not sure any necessarily expected it.

To be honest, most would simply have wanted the best for me, hoping I’d do whatever was going to work for me.

For many years, though, I believe I laboured under the illusion that I was somehow doing what was expected of me.

But here’s the thing.

Not only was I probably wrong, it might well have played some part in over 30 years of on-and-off depression.

My study of psychological well-being now makes clear to me how important it is to – as far as possible – independently determine your own direction in life.

I don’t think this means taking a completely selfish selfish approach to living, nor of course that you should cast others aside.

But I’m totally certain it does mean avoiding situations in which you become “locked in,” solely because of what you perceive as others’ expectations – expectations which may in any case be entirely imaginary.

I’m sorry this hasn’t been one of my more light-hearted posts, and please let me reassure you that this isn’t in any way because I’m not feeling light of heart.

I am.

And, of course, five years ago I did eventually return to live in California, which is working out pretty well actually.

(It only took me 34 years.)

This subject, however, does seem sufficiently important and serious not to make jokes about.

I encourage you, therefore, to think a little on this matter in the next few days, please, maybe asking yourself those three questions above.

I know I, and other readers, would love to hear about any reflections they may lead you to have.

Thank you.

20 thoughts on “Whose life is it anyway?

  1. Good morning Jon
    Thank you for this interesting observation about depression setting in when you aren’t living in alignment with your values or when you’ve lost your sense of agency.
    You alerted me to Lost Connections by Johann Hari and I and the friends I’ve recommended it to all find it rings true. Thank you for this and all your other super emails. I love receiving them!
    Best wishes,

    1. Well, thank you Ann. I’m happy that you’ve reminded us about Johann Hari’s book, which I must make a note to read again.

      I’m sure it’s the case that only some cases of depression have a circumstantial or environmental element, although it certainly seems true for me.

      It’s so good to know that you enjoy the weekly emails. They’re so rewarding to write, but much more so when I know they’re helpful.

  2. This rings bells for me. I had virtually no support in my life when growing up in anything I did rather I was jeered at – it did not stop me – but ruined my confidence and made me far too amenable. It is only of late that I have learnt that I do not have to please other people and can do exactly as I please (as long as I do no harm). I am 70 years of age!

    1. Delighted to hear that you’re living life on your own terms now, Judith.

      And congratulations on building up seven decades of wisdom. That’s really something.

  3. I makes me happy that you found your way to knowing yourself and doing what makes your heart sing. Having such a memorable experience at a young age where there much have beeen so much freedom and creativity makes its mark. A lot of our life wherever we are, whatever we are doing doesn’t feel that way and we can feel unfulfilled. It’s hard aways to know at the time sometimes. We can get swept on the torrent of the river so to speak and agree it can take some time to get on the riverbank, reflect and change trajectory.

    I’ve never had anyone’s expectations. Reading your piece I felt strange like I would have loved to have someone have expectations of me as it would have meant I was important to them. However what I really feel is I have lacked an unbringing that made me feel worthwhile. Having others expectations on you or perceiving that brings its own issues. Often I have been overcome with feelings that I am nothing ( which isn’t true).

    My restrictions have come from within. I have for a lot of my life either been stuck in freeze mode with one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. Going no where but expending a lot of energy. Or in flight mode moving from one thing to another. Both fear responses.

    Mine is from past trauma and it has taken me 30 years too to have many realisations, to start to understand myself and to be just who I am and that is enough. I am not there yet but I have stopped running. Just need to work out how to let go now of the accelerator and brake, come out of freeze and feel safe.

    Thank-you for sharing yourself so freely. I am sorry you experienced so many years of depression and happy that you have got to where you are.

    I hope you have a beautiful day.

    1. Your message moved me, Lydia. But I’m reassured to know that you, too, seem to be finding yourself: discovering who you are, really.

      Thank you for sharing. It sounds as though you’ve faced some really tough struggles, which makes me feel honoured and privileged that you’ve found a place to talk about them, a little, here.

      I’m really touched by your “hope you have a beautiful day,” which is in itself a beautiful thing to say.

      1. Jon, Thank-you for your response. I’m grateful. Sorry it took me a while to reply. Thank-you also for your thought provoking, inspiring blog sharing your experiences and thoughts. Hope you are well. All the very best Lydia

  4. Thank you for this Jon. I started reading and felt my eyes fill with tears. That’s how much your words impacted upon me.

    I’m in my late sixties and was an adventurous baby boomer, the youngest of a family withrigid and traditional expectations. I too went to the US and I conformed to family wishes on my return after a few year. I too had a successful job in the media and for me, that caused family disapproval, perhaps some jealousy too. In the main I became what my family expected of me. I lost sight of joie de vivre and had recurrent and severe depression. I didn’t associate this with the shoulds and oughts of my family.

    In the last couple of years, free of obligations I’ve met a great and loving man and have rediscovered the old me. What fun! Travelling on a whim, laughing, loving, dancing, watching telly, cooking – all simple pleasures but with no one to judge my choices. What a joy to connect to the young girl I used to be without an unidentified fear of criticism.

    So, thanks again Jon and, for anyone reading this, please take heart, it is possible.

    1. Jaz, it was my turn to feel moved when I read the above. Fascinating to hear you talk about your family, and travelling the the US, and also having a successful career.

      Brilliant to hear, though, that you’re having a fantastic time now. Give that man a gold star, and have two yourself.

      Thank you for sharing, and also (definitely) for encouraging others to take heart. That means a lot.

  5. Hi, Jon and all
    What a thought-provoking Moodnudge which has filled my mind all morning.

    I frequently suspect I’ve tried to fulfil expectations when, in truth, there was probably no intention by my family in particular to influence my life. I’m sure I would have made more independent life choices if I hadn’t wanted to avoid what I imagined would disappoint or worry my parents maybe because they were always there for me and my siblings. I think I was the odd one out being something of a dreamer and tried to be a bit more dynamic like everyone else!

    I read your comment, Lydia, and wish you all the courage you need to get to where you want to be in life, especially not having had the support and care that would have made such a difference. And I admire both you and Jon for bringing your thoughts to us all with such openness and honesty. Thank you. It’s an inspiration for anyone wanting to move forward.

    As for people I know who do have expectations of everybody around them, they have a huge negative impact on me and I do my best to steer clear of them. Evangelists of any persuasion, religious or not, are at the top of the list. I just hope I don’t have the same effect on other people.


    1. Sounds like we really got you thinking, Gill. Thank you for your really thoughtful contribution, and also for supporting Lydia so kindly.

      It sounds like we can both look back and see that some of what we thought were other people’s expectations were, maybe, actually our own.

      I really appreciate you having added your thoughts here.

    2. Jon, Thank-you for your response. I’m grateful. Sorry it took me a while to reply. Thank-you also for your thought provoking, inspiring blog sharing your experiences and thoughts. Hope you are well. All the very best Lydia

  6. Thank you Jon. Your reflections always touch me and make me feel understood and therefore less alone. Ever since my mom died when I was 13, I felt an unspoken expectation to fill her role as my father’s wife and my sibling’s mother. Of course my dad never specifically spoke this expectation, but it was there. And he was probably not conscious of imposing this expectation, but it was there. And I tried to fulfill it (never in the sexual aspect, although there were subtle sexual expectations that were not obviously sexual but had sexual undertones). In any event, I am strong today, and I thank you for your gentleness and kindness.

    1. Thank you for such profound honesty, Maria, which really does go to show that life has so very many layers. You have been, and are, so strong – and I’m sure very many of us are in awe of the way you’ve dealt with all that has come your way.

  7. Thank you, Jon, for this wonderful prompt and blog entry. I’ve been thinking about expectations this year, particularly the ones that my ex-husband and subsequent boyfriends have had for me, which I’m assuming I was unable to satisfactorily meet since almost all of them left me for other women.

    Some of the expectations were unreasonable, like being the center of that person’s universe. I have my own life and wants and needs; I wasn’t placed on the planet to be at my partner’s beck and call 24/7. Other expectations were also unrealistic, such as always supporting them and defending them, even when they were demonstrably wrong. I’m not a mommy substitute with overflowing unconditional love. That’s an expectation I’ve never had any desire to fulfill. Or so I believed.

    Since last year’s disastrous relationship, my first one in over two decades which unexpectedly ended when he went back to his ex-girlfriend (theme song of my life), I’ve been doing a great deal of self-examination while developing a daily mindfulness practice of journal writing and meditation. And what I finally realized about these romantic failures is that I’ve been lying to myself first about what my expectations have actually been for relationships. What I was unconsciously looking for was what my narcissistic mother wanted from me, which I had to deliver to keep from being abused. My expectations were my mother’s expectations. And I was merely transferring them to my romantic partners. Oy vey.

    When I think back to my previous relationships, especially the one last year where I pretzeled myself into being everything he said he wanted from a girlfriend, only to be rejected for a woman who ultimately put herself first, I can now see how my expectations for these men have been crap. I’ve been expecting them to be my mommy substitute, just as they have expected me to be the same. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Letting go of expectations, be them your own or someone else’s, is the foundation for living an authentic life. It’s time for me to break this vicious cycle and learn to not expect anything from anyone. Thanks again.

    1. Thank you so much, Judi, for thinking aloud, which is most definitely allowed. There’s so very much rich reflection in your post, and I hope you won’t mind me saying how much I loved the phrase “I pretzeled myself,” which was new to me. What a brilliant way to describe the idea of twisting ourselves to meet others’ expectations. I love the way you write—I’d buy your book.

  8. Hello Jon and all,

    I have been pondering your post quite a bit after last week as it also resonates with me.
    Throughout my working life I have never been blessed with a manager who was “around”, so got used to the autonomy and, on bad days, having no support and having to muddle through. To cut a long story short, I left my last job because of an overbearing micro manager who had no trust in me to do the job at all and destroyed what little confidence I possess. In my new job I also have a manager who is very senior and therefore never around. After a year of moans from her that I am underperforming she has finally conceded my role used to be two.
    I am due to have a review of this role, but in the intervening time I have realised I have become so miserable because:

    1) I had begun simply to do what I was told for a quiet life as every time I challenged something I was reprimanded.
    2) along with my manager I have to work with at least 6 different leads, all with different views and idiosyncrasies
    3) my workload is reactionary, all tasks are entirely different with no structure.

    I have come to the conclusion that I have to now bite the bullet and start looking for roles that have a certain amount of structure and repetitiveness in them to get me through on bad days, a role in a team where I feel there is less of the buck stopping wholly with me so I feel less pressured.

    Or, I go wholly the other way and set up my own business where I control my workload and my pace on my terms. But of course, feeling low, I am struggling to really ascertain what this would look like and plan it. I started a business plan for digital comms consultancy (I trained as a journo) a few months ago but have totally hit a brick wall with it and lost all faith in it as a business idea.

    Any thoughts, feedback from others who have had to adapt their working life to accommodate their moods much appreciated.

    1. Although this does sound a complex situation, Kate, I’m impressed that you’ve been able to explain it so congruently, and also that you’ve developed at least two possible routes for yourself.

      That’s no mean achievement when you’re feeling low, as you say you are.

      Since you’re a writer, I will mention one process that I’ve experimented with recently, which is “expressive writing.” I picked up a book by James Pennebaker, whose work I’d heard of, but whose principles I’d never actually tried.

      This is the book:


      I think you should be able to “look inside” the book online to get a little flavour of it.

      It’s mainly designed for someone who wants to process some kind of big traumatic event in their past, but I’ve found it helpful simply when I was feeling stuck.

      It simply involves sitting down three times, on different days, and writing about your situation in a kind of stream of consciousness way for 20 mins each time.

      I actually found it fascinating, useful, eye-opening, and actually really tiring!

      It may not be your thing, Kate, but might be worth considering. Maybe others will have ideas, too.

      Thank you for gathering your thoughts so well, and for describing your situation so succinctly.

      Keep going: it does seem to me as though you’re making significant steps in working things out – honest.

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