A man said to the Universe: “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the Universe, “The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation”
—Stephen Crane, American short-story writer, novelist and poet
It is human nature to expect. We live our lives expecting it to get better with each passing day. We expect our careers to skyrocket to success, our relationships to bloom, our fitness levels to improve, and our life to get richer. We expect the same joy and fulfilment for our loved ones, too: more or less. At a macro level, we expect real estate prices to remain stable, crime rates to come down, world peace to fortify, and so on. There is nothing wrong in expecting good things out of life. In fact, expecting motivates us to work in the direction of improving our lives, and also of those around us.
Trouble begins when expectations change from being preferences to demands; when we insist on our lives expanding in a certain way; the world behaving as per our demands. In fact, “demandingness” is at the root of almost all conflicts. The absolutist “shoulds” and “musts” in our lives, regardless of whether they are directed towards oneself or others, are self-defeating, because they set us up for sure-shot disappointments. Demands create a lot of mischief in our lives: emotional distress, relationship conflicts, communication breakdown, misunderstanding, distrust, and a wide range of other common problems.
The brief dialogue between man and the Universe quoted at the outset pretty much sums up the age-old absurdity of humans. We, seemingly the greatest of species to have graced this planet, are the most demanding as well. And our demands are, most frequently, ridiculous. We demand from everyone and everything. We habitually insist on having our own way and, when our demands are not fulfilled, we feel disappointed. To be sure, I am not referring to physiological demands, which are of course are justified. For example, our body demands air, water, food, shelter, and rest to survive. But, when our demands extend to areas like relationships, they are, more often than not, skewed.
Core of the matter
Dr Albert Ellis, who propounded Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy [REBT], refers to demandingness as “musturbation.” REBT practitioners place demandingness right at the core of irrational beliefs—the root of all disappointments.
All the same, the dangers of demandingness have not been discovered recently. Even the Holy Bible highlights its perils: “Demandingness is insisting that our interest be served irrespective of others. We demand that people treat us the way we believe they should. We demand that people support us in time of trouble. We demand that no one comes close to hurting us. Wedged tightly in the recesses of our heart is this ugly splinter, which if not removed, will produce a poison that will infect every part of our life” [Psalm 7:1-7].
Let’s take an example of how demandingness can be self-defeating. We naturally prefer to be loved, to be treated fairly, and to get what we want. When we do not get what we want, we feel angry, hurt, or sad. These negative emotions, although unpleasant, are natural and often motivate us to do what we can to change the situation.
However, when we elevate our preferences to demands, it is usually self-defeating. Say, we greatly prefer to be loved. However, if we demand that “I must be loved, or it is terrible,” then, we will feel not only sadness when we are rejected, but profound depression. If we believe that we must be loved, we might unwittingly engage in self-defeating behaviours, such as living with a mate who is abusive, or someone who is not a good match, so that we can feel being “loved.”
The best thing we’d do is to accept ourselves as we are. This propels us to see things clearly from within us—not just from the outside. If this isn’t our first, best step to self-acceptance and true fulfilment, what is?
Self-acceptance Holds the Key
“What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things”
—Epictetus [Circa AD 50-130]
When faced with demandingness, we would do well to remember Epictetus’ sublime philosophy. Epictetus believed that it is not the things that happen to us, but our beliefs about what happens to us that upset us the most. You get the point: instead of demanding to be loved, we may state the same in terms of a preference: “It would be nice if I were loved, but if not, it’s okay.” When we do this, we accept ourselves as we are and there is no need to demand that anything or anyone [including ourselves] be any different.
The next time you find yourself demanding happiness, success, love, peace or anything else from life, just spend some time in quiet contemplation and ask yourself how is “demanding” helping you. If all it does is create anxiety in you, then you can remind yourself of Epictetus: drop your demands, and think in terms of preferences. It’s only a matter of changing your fallacious thinking, because all it does is trouble your emotions. Once you distil your demands to preferences, you will find that you are open to receiving all the precious gifts that life has to offer, without the accompanying anxiety of the absolutist “musts.”
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, “How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech.” If we listen to the wise man and simply exercise our freedom of thought, we would all be happier for it—and wiser.
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