April 18, 2011

Command Performances

I’m fortunate to have so many friends and relatives to use as examples of bad behavior in my blogs, but of course my favorite example is my wife, I wouldn’t say that behind her back, or if she didn’t already know it. And I also wouldn’t say it if my wife couldn’t cite just as many examples of my own bad behavior as soon as she reads this blog!

Kidding aside, each of us is pretty good at spotting the bad behavior perpetrated by the other—as is true in most marriages and other experiences in life—and when it comes right down to it, that bad behavior can often be summed up by the word “demanding-ness”. In terms of her demands, it’s not as if my wife must have diamonds or other luxuries, and my demands on her are not anything you’d call a superhuman feat, either. And yet, we want what we want, when we want it.

Whenever I think of this, it reminds me of England’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. At the drop of a hat, the good Queen can decide she wants to have a palace full of friends in for dinner and to have Sir Paul, or Sir Elton, or any other Sirs she has named, come to entertain. It’s called a command performance because they can’t refuse.

It’s similar to that with our own demanding natures except that sometimes people DO refuse to do what we want. They don’t realize they are dealing with royalty!  Thus my wife’s command performances consist of expecting that I will turn up for dinner at precisely the moment the rice is done, or the roast is ready for carving. She believes she has the right to expect this to happen whether I have prior knowledge about the rice, the roast, or her recent assent to royalty.

Of course, I’m having a bit of fun with the topic of demanding-ness, with the hope that it will be possible for all readers to see how universal it is. We are all prone to have ideas of how we or others SHOULD or MUST behave, how the world SHOULD be, and how events and the future SHOULD proceed. It is in our mental make-up to picture and plan for how life will be, and when our expectations are not met, we usually aren’t happy about it. When I step out of the shower and find no towel on the rack, or traffic doesn’t flow to my liking, my expectations are unmet and I am prone to express the very royal sentiment, “We are not amused.”

Reducing demanding-ness is difficult. It’s tough because we don’t even see the inner expectation until it goes unmet. For example, when I arrive home right on time and things go like clockwork from the kitchen to the dining table, who remarks on that? Nobody. Nothing happened. It goes unseen. When I step from the shower and grab a fresh fluffy white towel to dry myself, where is the expectation in that? And, when I enter the interstate and traffic flows well on my way to a meeting in Seattle, all is right in my kingdom. Of course it should be that way. That is life, going along, as it ought to.

Awareness of a demand happens when expectations are being challenged or unmet, and that goes for the person holding the expectation as well as the one on whom the unspoken demand is made. It is hard to see these opportunities for conflict in advance, and even hard to head them off once you see what’s happening.

I think two things help keep expectations from becoming demands: 1) try to have realistic, reasonable expectations or “strong preferences” of yourself, others, and the world and when things happen that way you will be pleased. However, when you don’t meet up to your expectations, others don’t behave the way they “should,” and events don’t pan out as planned, you will be affected (sad, worried, annoyed), but not emotionally disturbed (depressed, anxious, or angry) by them. I believe this awareness of self, others, conditions, and the future to be the most useful thing I could teach others. If you want to get good at identifying demandingness, all you have to do is look for the “Should” or “Must” that underlies your own, or another’s depression, anger, or anxiety; and 2) build the skills of frustration tolerance and resilience and realize that you are not royalty and that often things will turn out that contradict your royal demands. If you do this you will most likely be able to respond effectively after a violation of your expectations. We find these tips helpful in reducing “command performances” around our own little palace. I hope they work for you as well.