I was at an airport, and I overheard a video chat a young woman (mid- to late-twenties, I’m guessing) was having with a friend. She was loud and dramatic, which is why I heard as much of the conversation as I did. “I can’t even get into it right now. No one understands what kind of emotional pain I am in!”
There is a Tracey Ullman sketch where she is Angela Merkel and she is trying so hard not to roll her eyes that the rest of her body flips off the couch she is perched upon. I wasn’t about to flip off an airport chair, but I was in danger of giving myself an aneurysm. And that was BEFORE she said the next part.
She was lamenting the fact her father hadn’t bought her a house. Apparently, he was in the process of upgrading his own living situation by buying a new house and audaciously planned to live in it instead of giving it to her. She wasn’t just complaining, either. She was furious. She said something to the effect, “How dare he put himself before his own child! I mean, seriously?”
I was disgusted, which threw me into a panic. I am currently working on a major career shift, away from Corporate America and toward becoming a therapist. I’m nearly a year through my first year of grad school. “Now I remember that I hate people? NOW?”
I was still freaking out when I got on the plane. “Am I seriously going into debt and giving up all my free time for grad school so that I can help Twinkie-headed upper-middle-class Gen Z derps deal with the banal realities of gainful employment? For half the money that I am making today? What am I doing? Have I lost my mind?!”
I was obsessing about this – picturing myself Zooming a session from my office and being called “basic” by a nepo baby in a BTS T-shirt – and finally, after some box breathing, asked myself what I would do if she were my client. Seriously, this is a good exercise, I thought. What would I do? First, I would listen to her. Really listen, without judgment. Then, I would forget about the obnoxious details of the complaint and focus on what is at the heart of this issue for this person.
Once I posed the question, I found my answer pretty quickly. The more I explore the counseling arts and my own internal emotional landscape, the more I realize that I can usually figure out why I’m feeling what I’m feeling by applying a simple equation: find the difference between expectation and outcome, and that equals a feeling. A positive difference means a positive feeling. A negative difference results in a negative feeling.
That might seem obvious, especially in big situations. “I expected my outdoor wedding to be sunny and mild, but it rained and I fell in a mud puddle on my altar walk, and now I’m mortified and enraged and planning to sue the sky.” Or, “I was expecting a small tax refund, but I got ten large and I’m thrilled!” Sure. But it is more than that. It is everything. It’s expectations that you don’t even realize you have.
For example, I remember I was at a company party, and I told a joke that fell flat. Not only that, it offended a few people. And to compound this, people kept walking into the room and asking what we were talking about, and my coworkers made me tell the joke again, and again, until one more person walked in and I refused to repeat it and I went and hid in the bathroom. I felt embarrassed and inept and if it hadn’t been a Friday night, I probably would have called in sick the next day to avoid facing these people. Why did I feel so bad? Because I expected them to laugh, and that was not the outcome. I got something worse than laughter. I got crickets and judgment, and a self imposed “time-out” in the loo.
The young woman at the airport clearly expected more from her parents than she was getting. Her expectations didn’t seem reasonable to me as an outsider, but that isn’t the point. It would seem her parents did her a major disservice by not preparing her for adulthood if they left her with the expectation that things were always going to be easy and comfortable. Maybe they paid for everything and built the expectation that they always would. Maybe they never let her experience consequences for her choices, and she was completely unprepared to have to pay back her credit card loans and/or student loans, which got her into financial trouble. When parents don’t set realistic expectations to prepare their offspring for harsh realities, they set their kids up for pain and disappointment. I can empathize with that. What is more, I can work with that. THAT is fodder for a dozen therapy sessions.
It is possible that the best thing my parents did to prepare me for adulthood was send me out into the world with subterraneously low expectations of… well… just about everything. I knew I was on my own after 18, and I didn’t resent it. Even though I had friends whose parents paid their tuition and gave them cars and condos and an allowance through college, I wasn’t expecting help, so I wasn’t angry when I didn’t get it.
Now, I get that putting myself through college in the 90s was a much easier lift than it would be today. And I get the sense that the current social expectation is that you will help your kids with college, just as you are expected to clothe, feed, and shelter your children in their formative years, and also never send them into a coal mine to contribute to the family’s coffers. But if I were in a situation where I couldn’t help my child with tuition without endangering my retirement savings, I sure as hell would be making that clear to my kid so that they know not to rely entirely on my help. Then I would hand them a pamphlet on exciting careers in coal mining.
I do hate people. I hate the collective “people.” (In my defense, people are awful.) But I don’t hate persons. One at a time, I can always find some common ground with a person. Even with Gen Z persons.
At least, I hope so.