“The best things in life are unexpected—because there were no expectations.”
- Eli Khamarov -
Whether we realize it or not, many of us are affected by expectations we have for our physical spaces. For example, we might expect a vacation resort to induce a state of deep relaxation in our overworked mental space. Prior experiences with a physical space might cause us to try and recreate a feeling we've previously experienced there (with varying degrees of success). Or, not understanding what is expected of us in a space might cause some discomfort. Understanding why we have certain expectations of physical spaces, and adjusting the thoughts in our internal spaces can help, and set us up for new adventures we may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience.
My friend Vianne and I are planners. Whether it’s for dinner, dancing, or other activities, we mutually agree on when and where we get together—very much in advance. My husband is a planner too, so Vianne has also gotten used to receiving invitations to our gatherings, along with a list of suggestions about what would be helpful for her to bring. So during Independence Day weekend, when Vianne and I received a text message from our friend Craig about an impromptu cookout at his place, it caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Text messages between the three of us flew by: between he and I and she and he, trying to ascertain when the event would start and what we should bring; and between she and I, expressing frustration over Craig's confusing or nonexistent responses to our questions. We wondered: did he think we would bring food and contribute to its preparation? Or, was he wanting us to just show up at his house and allow him to host? I don’t think Craig had any expectations for us, yet we were troubled by all this uncertainty. At dinner one night after Craig's gathering, I asked Vianne whether we would have minded if he told us he expected help. Her response was, “No, not at all.” Then I asked, “And if he wanted us to sit back and relax so he could pamper us, would that have been OK too?” Her response, “Of course.” This got me thinking—if either outcome was fine (and in actuality, we did a little bit of both), why did it cause us so much angst beforehand? Why did we feel so strongly like we needed to know what to expect when we were visiting Craig’s house?
When I told this story to my friend Paige, she put her finger on it: Vianne and I needed to know what to expect in Craig’s space because we didn’t want to “get it wrong.” See, Vianne, Paige, and I have all experienced significant uncertainties growing up, which means that as adults, we try to avoid it at all costs. When we aren’t clearly told what to expect, the children in us still believe we might do something inappropriate, or won’t be prepared for or live up to what is expected of us—and we’ll suffer the consequences. Whether this means people will cease liking us and wanting spend time with us, we’ll get in trouble, or be humiliated, these concerns are not at all rooted in the present day.
When Vianne and I chatted more about this, we decided we needed a way to regain some balance in such situations—in other words, one of us needed to cue the other so we could recognize when we were truly curious and wanting to be helpful, versus when we were being neurotic! This would require moving the amount of consciousness we had of ourselves after the fact to when we first found ourselves getting into such a state, which is easier said than done. In retrospect, calling her and talking it through to see how we really felt about each alternative could have helped us both discover that either option was fine, and that our worry wasn’t really about what it appeared to be about.
A more significant issue for me about Craig's impromptu invite was whether to go at all. See, when I received his text mid-morning that I could head over any time that afternoon to enjoy food, drink, and the lake behind his house on what really was a gorgeous day, it actually stressed me out. I knew Craig wanted to entertain in his new home, but my husband and I had already made a slew of other plans. I went into a tailspin about what to do with my “time space”, for which I already had some pretty high expectations. In addition to my normal morning routine of journaling, working out and meditating, I had plans to work on this book, and we had a whole chicken in the fridge, on which we planned to try out a rotisserie attachment for the grill, since I had given it to my husband as a birthday present. It was supposed to rain on Monday, so Sunday (the day of Craig’s cookout) was the only day we had the time required to actually rotisserie a chicken! I spent what felt like hours going back and forth, evaluating pros and cons, trying to figure out the best thing do to: act spontaneously and change my plans, or deny Craig’s request because it was too last minute, and potentially miss out on a fun time?
Looking back the whole situation sounds quite ridiculous, but at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable. As I said, I am a planner, and there’s something oddly rewarding to me about making a list of “to do’s” and crossing things off throughout the day. This was instilled in me early in life—even as a young child, I had a long list of chores to complete, after which completing I would get some recognition from my parents. Logically I recognize that I don't need their approval now, and that I could stand to be more flexible, but old habits die hard! Thanks to my husband’s extreme flexibility with our plans and Vianne’s encouragement to go with her, we did all end up going to Craig’s party. We had a great time, and Monday turned out to be sunny enough for us to rotisserie the chicken after all!
Transferring Expectations across Spaces
Every year, my company treats its employees to a weekend outing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This outing includes accommodations for our families, live music, and plenty of food and drink. The first year I went to the outing, I brought my boyfriend, Jason. The series of events that unfolded are still, almost five years later, not comical. We underestimated traffic, turning the three hour trip into something like seven. Our first hotel room smelled strongly of mold, and when we went to open the slider door to postpone dealing with the issue until morning, we discovered a whole army of spiders congregating around the handle! After driving back to the front desk securing a new key, and driving to a new building, we stared in amazement at a row of rooms numbered seven, eight, and ten, feeling like we were in some bizarro world with our key labeled “#9”. Back at the front desk we were told our room was tucked back in a corner we’d missed. The next day we tried to do several activities, all of which were thwarted for various reasons. I did end up having a lovely lunch of lobster roll and chips, and we shared a milkshake for dessert. Unfortunately, this was before I realized that my body was starting to become intolerant to lobster—violently intolerant. My stomach twisted and pulsed for the rest of the day, which I spent almost entirely in room #9’s bathroom. Saturday night I tried to be a trooper and get ready for the big feast (so Jason could get something to eat). This required us to drive a half an hour to the main hotel, during which my insides felt like they were going to burst, and I was deep breathing as if in labor. We had to park the car about a mile away, and walk up a steep hill or take the shuttle. Since I couldn’t wait for the shuttle, we raced up the hill (me with a sprained ankle that wasn’t healing well to begin with). At the top, I made a bee line for the restroom and told Jason to get some food. I was able to make a quick appearance in the dining room to tell him we had to leave, and then a similar drive back to our room ensued. Obviously, neither of us had very much fun!
The following year I didn’t go to the outing, and felt completely comfortable with my decision. The year after that, I found myself in a quandary. I was dating a co-worker who had been with the company for almost fifteen years. He really enjoyed the outing and wanted me to go with him. He had seniority and would get a room in the main hotel, so there would be no driving back and forth. But even after two years, I still had all the horrible memories to overcome—my default expectation was that if I went, I’d be absolutely miserable. But because it was important to him, I decided to see what I could do to take my experience of this space from horrible to truly fun and relaxing. After all, this was a free weekend vacation at a beautiful resort in the mountains—something most people would pay a lot of money for. I found a restaurant with an interesting martini menu to visit the Friday evening we arrived, and arranged for a colleague and her husband to meet us there for dinner. Since it had been a long day of working and passenger-ing (my husband did the driving), I decided that when we got back I would take some of the chill out of the mountain air by making use of our room’s lavish fireplace. Thoughts of curling up on the sofa with a blanket and a good book made me smile with anticipation. In fact, this reminded me of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox Massachusetts, where I try to go every year for some rest and relaxation. I figured that if I could do some Kripalu-like relaxing at this resort, I could definitely make the outing into something I would enjoy!
Since we were in the main hotel, our room was “near the action”—right over the action, actually. The music was loud, but I simply adjusted the volume of the Chinese bamboo flute music streaming from my iPod dock, and continued to read just fine. When my eyes started to get heavy around eleven o’clock, I decided I would turn in. Unfortunately, no amount of effort on my part (and there were several different attempts to be resourceful!) would stop the bass from reverberating through every cell in my body, mercilessly chasing sleep away. My husband came in around one in the morning (when the party ended), and I was finally able to sleep. What I realized the next morning was that with best intentions, I tried to use the space in a way that conflicted with its clearly designated weekend purpose, which was to party with fellow co-workers. I’m happy to say that I learned from my experience—the next night I had drinks and danced badly to bad music with my colleagues, and I had a great time! My understanding (and acceptance) of how this physical space would be used allowed me to flow with the current, rather than against it. And sometimes, you just need to do that!
Transferring expectations across spaces apparently is a very difficult thing to do, even when a whole group of people is trying to make it happen. Every Tuesday night for as long as I can remember, a West Coast Swing dance is held at the Elks Lodge in Arlington, Massachusetts. This is a small space, but usually gets a good crowd. On the left side of the room there are three rows of chairs lined up, on which dancers put their jackets and under which they leave their street shoes. It’s a single file in, single file out kind of thing, and you’re inevitably in someone’s way. Toward the front of the room, where you enter, is the table where you are greeted and where you pay, and slightly behind that, the table with the DJ’s equipment. On the right is a small bar. There’s nowhere to stand and have a conversation without being in the way or being relegated to the dark alley of chairs. The floor can get sticky, wreaking havoc on one’s knees. Most of the year it feels like you’re dancing in a sauna, regardless of attempts to get the air conditioning working.
To their credit the Elks started updating and renovating the space, and at one point we needed to find a temporary place to dance. For a few weeks, the Arlington dance was held at a nearby Elks Lodge in Lexington, which for all intents and purposes, was a superior space. It was much larger, the ceilings were higher, with round tables and chairs spread out on one side so people could hang out. Although the quality of the floor was still variable, it wasn’t as hot and sweaty as Arlington. The dances were held on the same night, at the same time, and with the same DJs—yet, it lacked the same energy as the Arlington space! As I sat in the back of the hall at a table with my friend Jason, we got to talking about it, and theorized that having too much space actually killed the vibe. Because it’s small and there’s nowhere really to congregate, its very nature pushes people to get on the floor and just dance. Plus, while gross, the whole concept of being in a sweaty, lackluster space together is a mild form of mutual suffering that bonds dancers. Just the “ugh, I’m so gross!” comments one hears and makes to others creates a feeling of being in this “terrible” situation together. By the nature of the space, Arlington forces intimacy, and that intimacy alone makes for a great night!
Working through Discomfort in Spaces
After watching too many episodes of L.A. Ink and seeing too many women in yoga class with beautiful artwork on their bodies, I decided that I wanted to get a tattoo. This meant I also had to decide what to get and where to put it, find someone who could translate the concept in my mind to something tangible, and locate a reputable tattoo parlor and artist to do the work. A year or so after I had the idea, things fell into place and I met with a woman name Julia, who did both custom artwork and tattooing. Since she had her own shop close by, I decided I would get the tattoo as a present for my thirty-sixth birthday. The artwork would be ready on my appointment day, and I was assured that Julia and I would work together to make any needed changes. Then she’d do the tattooing. Although my husband was supportive, I asked my close friend Paige to accompany me because I felt like I could talk with her about anything and everything, and I might need some distraction during the procedure.
A week or so before my appointment, I shared some nervousness I had about getting the tattoo with Paige. What if the artwork wasn’t right and Julia didn’t understand what I wanted? How much did getting a tattoo really hurt? Paige responded in stern, motherly tones that I needed to really think about whether this was something I wanted to do. I was initially puzzled by her response, because I didn’t think I was feeling that anxious about it, but given how well she knew me I thought it was worth considering. Was I ignoring some a “gut feeling” that was telling me I was about to make a big mistake? Although I asked myself these questions, and chatted with my husband about it, I was never able to identify what Paige seemed to see. I searched and searched, but didn’t feel seriously anxious about it—it was more like a curious excitement, with some fear of not knowing what to expect. I kept the appointment, telling Paige I thought I really was fine about it.
The morning of the appointment, Paige drove me to Julia’s tattoo shop but seemed a bit distracted. Since she was in the middle of preparations for a cross country move at the time, I chocked this up to the fact that she had a lot on her mind. But as soon as we arrived and I started filling out paperwork in the waiting area, I could see her taking in the décor, which was as you might expect—lots of strange pictures and trinkets attached to the walls, including some skeletons with wings. Everyone working there was covered head to toe with art. It was difficult to ignore the fact that Paige felt uncomfortable in this space, so I tried to acknowledge her unstated feelings. I told her how nice Julia had been during my consultation, and about a dear, sweet friend I’d had whose style totally aligned with the look of this shop. Paige nodded but remained pretty quiet.
A few minutes later, I got to see the artwork and to my dismay, it wasn’t what I wanted at all. Yet, as Julia and I started collaborating, the piece started to take shape. After ten minutes or so passed, I felt badly about Paige sitting by herself in the waiting area, and asked if she wanted to join us. She declined, and then said she couldn’t stay. She was very uncomfortable being there and wanted to leave. I called my husband and asked if he could trade places with Paige.
Paige moved away, and I never found out what it was about the tattoo shop that caused her so much anxiety. But as she always used to say, “it’s never really about what it’s about.” Although she really wanted to be a good friend and support me through my experience, the concept, physical décor, or other people in the shop triggered some troublesome feelings that she just wasn’t able to bear or work through at the time.
Actually getting the tattoo—on my closest physical space—was a prime opportunity for me to work through discomfort. When I asked people who had tattoos about their experience, I received answers ranging from “it’s as painful as childbirth.” to “the vibration feels good.” After hearing so many different opinions, I decided it must depend on where one is getting the tattoo done, and one’s own tolerance for pain.
My tattoo took two and a half hours to complete. Julia started the process slowly, and at the beginning I was surprised because it didn’t hurt much at all. But as time passed and Julia started wiping the tattoo between inking sessions, I found I had to leverage some techniques to keep my mind in check. I closed my eyes, went inside, and tried to focus on taking long, deep breaths, noticing where in my body I was holding tension and intentionally trying to relax that area. When we were halfway through, the physical pain and intensity of my mind whining, “Are we done yet?” started to increase. Yet, I calmly responded to myself with, “We’ll be done when we’re done, just accept where you are right now and continue to breathe.” I believe these approaches to calm my mental spaces helped me tremendously in dealing with what was a voluntary, yet uncomfortable experience in the physical space of my own body.
Using Spaces to Feel Accepted
When I was twelve years old, my family moved from a house that was about an hour away from the nearest grocery store to one in a more populated area. Although there were many children on my street, I was the oldest—but by number only. In comparison to my new cohorts, my previously isolated environment had kept me young. I was still riding a Strawberry Shortcake bike that had originally come with training wheels when everyone else had dirt bikes and fancy ten-speeds. It didn’t take long for me or my family to realize that I had some catching up to do. Before I knew it, I had a twelve-speed that was too big for me to ride comfortably, new clothes, and a large in-ground swimming pool complete with diving board and slide. While several other kids on the street had pools, mine was the biggest, and all the kids knew it. Everyone—including the very same kids who made fun of me when I first moved in—all wanted to be my friend so they could be invited to swim. And as one might expect, there were some kids on the street who didn’t like each other, so if you invited some friends you were automatically excluding others. Looking back, it’s interesting to me how these material possessions and alterations to our home gave me a sense of power and control that I’d been missing when I first arrived. In retrospect I also recognize that most of the children I thought had wanted to be my friends because they liked me were mostly just using me for something I had.
As an adult, I often still feel like that backwards little twelve-year-old in unfamiliar social circles. I have a great husband, a good job, and a nice house. We have lots of friends, and we frequently have parties because we enjoy making new drinks, food, and entertaining. But it’s always interesting to see who offers us money for alcohol, who shows up with munchies, who asks what we need when we’re planning a larger get-together—and for those without much financial wherewithal, who offers time to help set up or clean up. At first glance, everyone appears to be a friend, but it’s sometimes difficult not to wonder how things would be if we weren’t fortunate to have all that we do. This is especially true for me I think, because I do have a certain level of insecurity about myself and am frequently concerned with how others perceive me. Growing up, I never really had anyone love me just for being me, and so I’m not sure how to recognize when people actually do it.
While it might be easy to leverage one’s physical environments to meet an unmet emotional need, there are also ways one might consciously or unconsciously pull directly at other people’s emotions to get something they’re lacking. When I was around thirteen years old, I remember having my first real boyfriend, who was then fifteen. We met at a music camp one summer, and I was smitten. Between home and school, my life was miserable, and Damian was the first person who made me feel truly loved. For a short time this made me feel really good about myself, but pretty quickly, so many years of love deprivation meant I needed more, more, and more from him. Although the affection and attention he gave me should have been enough, it wasn’t. I was an endless well, an unsoakable sponge. To make sure Damian really loved me, I made up stories I thought would upset him. And when he did get upset, such displays clearly illustrated just how important I was to him. Over the course of our nine month relationship, I was going to have to move away, I couldn’t see him anymore because my parents were against it, and even worse, there were days when I was potentially dying of some awful disease. I’m obviously not pleased with the things I said and did in that relationship, but with a lot of introspection and passing time, I realize I was using Damian and all the capacity for love to make myself feel as though I mattered. And although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I really, desperately needed that.