Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Tyranny of Unrealistic Expectations

When we tacitly accept the mythologies and assumptions of other people it it all too easy to become the victim of those unrealistic expectations. We do not want to disappoint people who think highly of us, even when they think more highly than is justified. Who knows, maybe they are right - maybe we can to all those things, if we just try harder! Wrong. It feels good, initially, to be put on a pedestal, but eventually "pedestal people" encounter significant dilemmas when expectations exceed their capabilities.

One of the greatest dangers of being the object of unrealistic expectations is how easy it is to believe the mythologies people have about us. Once we start up that alluring path strewn with pride, we begin to work hard, not on those things we believe to be our role, our job, but rather on tasks designed to fulfil the quixotic hopes of others. Before long we are neglecting important aspects of life such as family, friends, and social obligations in the community in order to do (or appear to do) all those miraculous things that are expected of us. When we get on a roll of "doing good" pedestal people may ignore our own physical, spiritual, and emotional health as we try ever harder to live up to a starry-eyed view others project on to us. Marriages can fall apart when expectations drive a spouse to try to do more than is good for them. It does not take very long to discover that a pedestal is about as lonely a prison as any other limited space.

Feeling trapped by unrealistic expectations often causes a growing sense of guilt about not being able to do all that is assumed, but it can trigger a temptation to fake it, even lie, to ourselves and others, rather than admit that we are just not that powerful or wise. Allowing the illusions and unreal mythologies of others to become your personal agenda can lead to very serious problems in important areas of life. You may know people who are living this kind of life, or you may be one of those who are caught in that trap. It is much easier for your ego to get on the pedestal than it is to get off.

People who are tempted to belive the mythologies of admirers are fortunate if they have someone who knows them well to grab their coattails and pull them back down to earth. Several years ago I helped a distressed mother get her life manageable and bring her family back together. She was grateful. One day she said to my wife, Hilda, in my presence, "It must be wonderful to live with Dr. Butts all the time". My stature increased several inches as I waited to see how Hilda would handle that. She was good! She smiled and asked, "Do you want to try it?".

Being placed on a pedestal can happen to almost anyone: doctor, clergyperson, social worker, banker, community "do-gooder", parent or teacher. You name the profession and I can tell you how it can happen. There is one unchanging truth that should be the mantra for everyone: "What lies beyond my power also lies beyond my responsibility". Let that thought play across the backdrop of your mind when you are considering how to respond to expectations others have of you, and which you have of yourself.

When the Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock was briefly acting Dean of Phillips Seminary, a woman came to his office and asked him to come out to the parking lot. He followed her to the parking lot and her car. She opened the door and slumped in the back seat was her brother. She explained that he had been a senior at the University of Oklahoma when he was in a bad wreck, and had been in a coma for eight months. She had quit her job as a school teacher to care for him, and now all her resources were gone. She gestured toward her brother and declared expectantly, "I'd like you to heal him." Dr. Craddock replied, "I can pray for him, and I can pray with you, but I do not have the gift of healing." She slammed the back door, got behind the wheel, and slammed her door. As she jerked the car in gear, she growled "If you don't heal, then what in the world do you do?!". Dr. Craddock said that he went back into his study, stared at his books and tried to forget what she had said.

No matter who you are, if you are on anyone's pedestal, get off. It is not a safe place to be.