Dealing with parental and societal expectations

A few days ago, I posted a rhetorical question on Twitter, asking if there was a word for when your boss is happy with your work, you are expected to love it because it follows your projected career path, and yet a large piece of you really just want to be off doing something else (other than crippling guilt).

For someone as moderately active on social media as myself, the response was much higher than usual. Most people identified with the sentiment, and a few felt compelled to call me out for “grass is always greener” and spoiled mentality (both men, interestingly).

The thing I find interesting is that I never claimed to like my job. Nor that it fit with my career aspirations. Only that it would seem the logical trajectory for someone with my educational background. A background I have primarily because I was heavily influenced by parental and societal expectations to do the “right” thing. And now I am feeling those same expectations guilt me into staying in my job.

The path of least resistance

I am a conflict-averse person. I will freely admit that I choose my education in chemistry largely because I didn’t really know what I wanted with my life, but also because it was the path of least resistance to follow expectations rather than carve my own path.

I suspect part of it comes from growing up in a conflict-laden home. It was just easier and less painful to go with the flow than attract attention and reprimand (and my own biggest fear: the dreaded monologue about how you are shit and/or just wrong about everything).

But this is not a post about laying blame. It happened and now I have to deal with it as an adult. Heavy conflict aversion being one of the things I really struggle with.

My incongruous supervisor

Things would probably be much easier on the conscience if I had a terrible boss, but I do not.

From what I gather, a lot of PhD-students would kill for a supervisor like mine. He is engaged, available, gives clear instructions and expectations, answers emails in a timely manner and is in his office more than he is out of it.

He also tells me I am doing an amazing job, which I frankly do not understand. I am not going for a humble brag here – I honestly do not understand it.

So when my supervisor and our head engineer for the instrument I’m using tell me I’m doing a great job I’m… confused.

This guy is such an “I look after my own” type personality, he has already asked multiple times what my plans after my PhD is. Because he has contacts. Because he’d go to bat trying to carve me a job if there was a possibility of one. Because he points out again and again what a good team we’ve got going after only two years. A team where we play on each other’s strengths.

Which is why I don’t know if I’d have the heart to leave my PhD a year early. Without even trying to finish. After all, what is two more years instead of one? And I like my coworkers. They are hard-working, knowledgeable and intensely passionate about their field.

I just… don’t want to feel tied to an office for 40+ hours a week. But am I going on accord with my own beliefs for caving into the expectations? Am I just projecting childhood fears that he’ll get angry? Or is it really that I don’t want to screw him over?

Learning to listen to yourself

When I identified that I wanted to try my hand at being an organic farmer, I felt like pieces were sliding into place and the fog lifting. Farming was something I had been actively discouraged from pursuing because of the long hours and low wage, so I felt like I had found a truth within myself that was mine, and not born from taking that path of least resistance by living up to expectations.

It had taken me a long time. Over ten years since I moved away from home for the very first time (pro tip: If you are feeling relief rather than homesickness when you move away from home, there is probably a reason for that even if you don’t know why at the time).

I have also learned that the days I feel quite happy with my job are the days I feel like I am managing it. The days I hate my job are the days I am struggling to write even a single sentence. All very human emotion. We feel happy when we feel like we are mastering a task and do it well. But I don’t understand a lot of the office politics. I’m a blue-collar child in a white-collar world, and I don’t understand how my job is supposed to work (or maybe it’s because I’m autistic. Probably both.).

This would, of course, be much easier if I hated my job every day. But I don’t. There was a reason I chose analytical chemistry over all the other STEM fields I could have gone for. There is a part of me that really enjoys what I do. Just like there is a part that really, really wants to pursue organic, regenerative farming. I always felt that if I could just split myself in two, life would be much easier. Just as in The road not taken by Robert Frost.

Dealing with parental and societal expectations

What to do?

My little twitter survey tells me that I am far from alone in feeling like this. That the parental and societal expectations that are superimposed on us are difficult to escape, even at the best of times and by the most well-meaning people.

I still think the best is to plump up that emergency fund in case things change at work. Because there is always room for an emergency fund, and the peace of mind it provides is priceless.

I am ten years removed from living in my parents house, and I have shedded a lot of the burden of their expectations over time. But I clearly have a long way to go still. Do you have any advice for growing out of expectations? Other than sticking to it slowly and patiently?

8 Comments on “Dealing with parental and societal expectations

  1. Slowly and patiently is pretty much the only way I know! I’m a few years older than you and I still struggle with parental and societal expectations sometimes.
    However it definitely gets easier with time. Also, the more I get to know new diferent people – at work or elsewhere – the more I can visualise that there are other ways of living , if you see what I mean?

    Also yes, moving away physically helps to give perspective.

    Keep at it- I don’t think enlightenment can be rushed …

    • That makes a whole lot of sense, Maria. Moving for university was definitely one of the best things I did, even if I choose what to study based on the wrong reasons. I met so many new and amazing people and realized there are different ways to live. Based on that, I should definitely get out and visit more farmers to hear how they’re making their life go ’round! 🙂

  2. Your choice to go into analytical chemistry a decade ago wasn’t wrong. Sure you may not have been sure what to do or realize it was a fear based decision but you’re a different person now. You can’t second guess the past. It was right for then. Maybe not now after you’ve changed and all the life/ work skills you’ve gained. But that’s ok.

    As for struggling with guilt or hesitation, it’s not necessarily bad. If you pull the trigger, it’ll be thought out. And all the more fulfilling. If I have the right impression from reading, you need more time to save. So no harm in saving and working toward it after work. Get some experience if you can. You have time to make that final decision. And time does wonders for courage and resolution. So try to enjoy the journey. As hard as it may be.

    • Very true, thank you for pointing that out. And we definitely need to save more money before pulling the plug. It just galls me to realize that I might stay longer because I hate rocking to boat!

      I see more and more that I need to get some WWOOFing under my belt! Maybe I can convince Mr. Frugasaurus to spend a few weeks next summer, or we could join a local shared farming community! 🙂

      • She absolutely did. 🙂

        And yes, farming can’t be wrong when it feels so right!

  3. Nice reflection here! I love how much you are trusting yourself on your journey. My husband tried his hand at organic farming. It was HARD! He no longer does it, but we have a few friends that do and it fits them well. They know the risk and the sacrifice, but they are well-supported by this community and they clearly love what they do.

    I also like your comment about feeling “relief” when moving away. I always told myself I should feel homesickness when I was younger and hospitalized for longer periods of time, but the truth was it was a chaotic toxic environment for me. I was happy someplace else (even a hospital)! As an adult, it’s so clear and easy to see anytime I go back there why I wilted like a dead plant. I’m always told to be something different than I am, I’m barely greeted, and every other sentence is about how I should be doing something differently (even now, as it comes to raising my son). I’ve outgrown them and deal with it well. But I can see why I struggled so much as a young person!

    Keep being yourself and seeking out what YOU ENJOY! That’s all that really matters.

    • Thank you for sharing. It felt strange to be the happiest I ever had when people I was getting to know where lamenting how they missed their home and their friends. Even stranger to grow up and see that what I thought was a completely healthy and normal upbringing was not quite that. Not by a long shot. I hear you on the wilting part. It doesn’t take a long visit before I start picking up bad habits and manners again, even as I try not to. Moving away was, without a doubt, the best thing I could have done.

      I am so glad we are more happy movers and no-longer-wilted-flowers thriving in this world! 🙂

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