August 1, 2002
Owning Your
Life--The Subtle

When We Try Too Hard to Live
Free of Others' Expectations
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This article is adapted from Blaine's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions.

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As far back as Andrew can remember, his parents wanted him to become a doctor. Throughout junior high and high school his dad, a respected surgeon in the community, tutored him in science subjects and did everything possible to spark his interest in medicine. When it came to acceptance in a premed program, his father’s influence was decisive. Andrew was admitted in spite of borderline grades.

College was Andrew’s first experience of living independently, and the freer university environment inspired him to consider other career options. After several sessions with a vocational counselor, he concluded he was best fit for a business profession. He came close to switching majors. Yet as he pondered the effect this change would have on his parents, he decided to stick with medicine. The fear of disappointing his folks was simply too great, and in the end their expectations carried the day.

Andrew’s parents also urged his younger sister to pursue a medical career. Yet Janet possessed a strong independent streak, and fought the idea tooth and nail. In college she opted for a business major and today manages a retail department store. Ironically, Janet realized by her second year of college that she would prefer a career in nursing. Yet the knowledge that this option fell within the realm of her parents’ wishes for her life was too great a deterrent. For Janet the crucial matter was to be her own person, and this meant avoiding any semblance of living out her parents’ expectations.

Who made the more independent decision, Andrew or Janet?

We’re inclined to say that Janet did. She was the one who broke the bindings of her parents’ expectations. Yet did she really? When we look closely at her reasoning, it becomes less certain that she acted freely. Like Andrew, she failed to follow the vocation she wanted. And like Andrew, it was her reaction to her folks’ expectations that held her back. The difference was that Andrew felt compelled to follow these expectations, while Janet felt compelled to rebel against them. In reality both acted from compulsion and not from freedom.

Andrew and Janet illustrate the challenge involved in trying to live independently of others’ expectations. The goal of being our own person is a good one. Owning our life is vital to psychological health. It’s a vital need for the Christian, for if we always feel obliged to please others’ expectations, we’ll not be able to respond fully to the Lord’s will for our life. Owning our life is a prerequisite to yielding it freely to Christ.

Yet the goal of owning our life is also an illusive one. And unless we accept that it can never be perfectly realized, we’re bound to frustration and a self-defeating mentality.

Many who fear commitment are fiercely concerned about owning their lives. Commitment fear is at heart the dread of losing control. For many commitment-fearful people this means fearing yielding control of their destiny to anyone. They can be unsettled just knowing that others think they are playing a role in their life. They may feel compelled to avoid taking any step that anyone else might claim credit for influencing. Yet their need for control greatly limits their options, and may even lead them to sabotage their most cherished goals and dreams.

Whether or not we fear commitment at a serious level, the urge to own our lives runs deep within each of us and is one of our most basic instincts. It can work either for us or against us. The challenge is to keep this drive within healthy bounds.

Defeating Our Own Purpose

Janet demonstrates the greatest irony of the desire to own our own life—the fact that when this urge becomes too strong, it always backfires on us. The obsession to avoid even the appearance of living out others’ expectations narrows our options considerably, and may keep us from doing what we most want to do.

The problem can become pervasive. For some, even the vague sense that others might have opinions about what they should do is enough to keep them from doing it. Many who would like the benefits of attending church choose not to become involved, because they know others think they should be there. They stay away out of the urge to be their own person. Yet they are acting no more independently than those who attend faithfully out of social pressure.

This same mentality leads others to abandon good relationships and marriage opportunities. They are uncomfortable thinking someone else could claim credit for their happiness or well-being. They bail out of a relationship at the point when it becomes most promising, fearing they’ve become too reliant on the other person for emotional support. They choose lonely independence over happy dependence.

Others strive fervently to act independently in all their decisions. If we’re at all socially active, though, it’s unlikely we can ever take any major step that at least some people are not hoping we will take. If the concern with being our own person is too strong, we become immobilized. There just doesn’t seem to be any course of action that is genuinely independent.

Facing Our Suggestibility

We shouldn’t underestimate, either, the role of our own suggestibility. We tend to think only certain people will succumb to the power of suggestion—the highly compliant person who can be hypnotized in five seconds, for instance. Numerous studies have shown, however, that each of us is far more suggestible than we normally suspect. Our outlook and mood are constantly affected by a multitude of influences around us.

As I’m working at home today, the weather is overcast, and my energy is lagging. Undoubtedly this loss of zest is due more to the dreary environment than to any physical factor. But I can’t deny that it may result even more from the fact that I’ve always heard that we don’t function as well in bleak weather.

Which of us has not made a significant purchase in recent months that we later realized was prompted more by media hype than by good judgment? And even with our most far-reaching decisions, when we look carefully at what influenced us, it’s often startling to find the role that others’ opinions played. Sometimes a brief word of advice pushed us forward. A comment made in passing—“You’d make a great preacher”; “You’ve got a nose for business”; “You should marry that woman”—stuck with us and determined our choice.

If we’re honest about it, we have to admit that it’s very difficult ever to demonstrate that any decision we make is truly independent. We simply cannot erase our suggestibility. In spite of our best efforts to think independently, we remain surprisingly capable of being swayed by others’ expectations.

Striking a Balance

Being our own person, then, is a more subtle challenge than most of us realize. It can require some significant shifts in our outlook and approach to life. Here are six suggestions for beating the challenge.

1. Accept the reality of living in a world of expectations. If I’m to realize my potential for Christ, I must accept a priori that there will be times when doing what is best will mean doing what other people think I should do. They may even be rooting for me to do it. They may even imagine that I’m doing it to carry out their expectations. I’ll need to remind myself otherwise, of course. But if I’m too ruffled by the problem of appearances here, I’ll never get off dead center. Independent action will be impossible. The desire to rebel will make me a slave.

Accepting the inevitability of sometimes living out others’ expectations is a vital first step in learning to own our own life.

2. Keep the desire to own your life within reasonable bounds. Aristotle observed that a virtue carried to an extreme becomes a vice. Satan seems to attack us at our strong points as much as at our weak ones. He’ll take a noble desire, for instance, and move us to focus on it to the point of obsession.

The concern to own our lives is a healthy desire. Yet when it becomes excessive it’s self-defeating. A moderate concern to be free from the control of others’ expectations always serves us better than an extreme one.

You shouldn’t want to let go of the desire to own your life any more than you would the will to live. Yet if you are obsessed with a need for control, you should strive to temper this drive. Remind yourself of the problems that occur when it becomes extreme. Ask God to give you a balanced concern for owning your life. Christ is on your side as you seek to keep this desire within reasonable bounds, and will give you success as you draw on his strength.

3. Strengthen your desire to realize your potential and to become what Christ wants you to be. An important step toward keeping the desire to own our life within proper limits is to focus our attention more on other personal drives. Not only do we each have a basic desire to be our own person; we have a drive for personal accomplishment as well. Concentrate on your desire to realize your potential, and do whatever you can to nurture that desire. Dwell on the benefits that come from fulfilling God’s plan for you—in work, personal ministry and relationships. As your desire for God’s will grows stronger, you’ll find it much easier to live with the reality of others’ expectations and to know what your response to them should be.

Paul is an interesting case in point. At first glance his attitude toward others’ expectations seems confusing. He spoke fervently of the need to obey God over people, for instance. “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10). Yet he spoke just as earnestly about the importance of serving others through accommodating their expectations. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).

We observe both extremes in his personal life as well. He went strongly against the counsel of others in pursuing certain personal goals. He proceeded to Jerusalem in spite of the pleas of numerous Christians who begged him not to court disaster. Once friends even gave Paul a prophecy of guidance, telling him bluntly that God didn’t want him going to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). Paul went anyway.

At other times Paul was surprisingly compliant. When he journeyed to Macedonia, he went in response to a vision of a man asking for his help (Acts 16:9). Paul and his companions undoubtedly expected to find a man active in ministry in Macedonia waiting for their assistance. Instead, they found a devout group of Jewish women who had gathered for prayer (Acts 16:13-15). One of them, Lydia, responded to Paul’s message and accepted Christ. She then invited Paul’s party to stay at her home, where they remained for the duration of their visit to Macedonia. Luke notes that Lydia “persuaded” Paul and his friends to lodge with her (v. 15). Paul was apparently unwilling to do so at first, perhaps wanting to search further for the man in his vision. Yet he allowed Lydia to change his mind. Here he showed flexibility and willingness to let God use someone else to influence his thinking.

Paul’s varied response to others’ desires for him makes sense only when we understand his frame of reference. His primary concern was not to own his life but to do the will of Christ. He knew that following Christ would sometimes require going along with others’ expectations and sometimes going against them. This isn’t to say that Paul didn’t cherish independence and control. He clearly did want to own his life. His desire was strong enough to protect him from caving in to unreasonable demands others placed on him. Yet it was not so extreme that he couldn’t listen thoughtfully to counsel—and he didn’t recoil from yielding to others’ expectations when it seemed advisable to do so.

Paul’s flexibility in dealing with others’ expectations is particularly impressive when we consider how headstrong and inflexible he was before coming to Christ. He demonstrates the balanced attitude that results when we become intent on following Christ and realizing the potential he’s given us.

4. Rebel by conforming. Another important point is that even when Paul did grant the expectations of others, he did so as a free choice. He was able to be all things to all people without capitulating. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19). Because his identity was secure in Christ, he could yield to others’ wishes yet still be his own person. His self-worth did not depend upon having to rebel.

From another angle, Paul did continue to rebel after becoming a Christian. His dogged personality remained intact. Yet he channeled his rebelliousness in redemptive directions. He rebelled against his own tendency to rebel. He rebelled against others’ expectation that he would rebel. Many times he rebelled by conforming.

It helps if we who are obsessed with owning our own lives can recognize that others expect us to rebel. They expect us to break our commitments. They expect us to go against the expectations of others, even if it means defying our own best interests. They expect us to do the unexpected. If we must rebel, we should learn to rebel against these expectations.

God doesn’t expect us to violate our personality when we become a Christian, but to harness its energy constructively. We should rebel against any personal tendency that inclines us to sabotage our own dreams. We can follow the counsel of others, even fulfill their expectations, without sacrificing our integrity. Owning our life is an internal matter much more than an external one.

5. Manage your suggestibility. While we cannot negate our suggestibility, we can do plenty to manage it. In his classic The Person Reborn, Paul Tournier stresses that God does not bypass our suggestibility in directing our lives but works through it to guide us.*

Our aim shouldn’t be to avoid being suggestible, which is an impossible goal. We should strive, rather, to put ourselves in situations where the most healthy “suggestions” occur. Being around optimistic people who believe the best for us can make a great difference. So can exposing ourselves to healthy Christian teaching and worship experiences. We are profoundly affected by role models as well. I should choose to spend my time with people whose attitude and lifestyle I admire.

6. Pray for wisdom. Most important, we need private time, quiet time alone with Jesus Christ. Appreciating our suggestibility helps us understand the need for personal time with Christ, where we give him an unhindered opportunity to influence our thinking. The benefit of such time in helping us know how to respond to others’ expectations is unmistakable. When I’ve committed the day to Christ and sought his direction, I can go forward confident that he’ll guide my decisions in his will. He’ll give me sound perspective in the midst of the maze of expectations I’ll confront.

Jesus himself found prayer indispensable in dealing with others’ expectations. On one occasion he arose early in the morning and spent time praying. Immediately afterward, he went against the advice of everyone and left an eager crowd in Capernaum in order to minister in other towns (Mk 1:35-39). Following his intensive time of prayer in Gethsemane, however, he cooperated with the designs of the officials to capture him (Mt 26:36-56). While his decision was equally free in each case, his response to others’ expectations was radically different. Again, we’re reminded that God sometimes calls us to act against the expectations of others, sometimes to fulfill them. Through seeking God’s direction in prayer, we can resolve this ambiguity.

Perhaps God in his design of human life has made the matter of dealing with others’ expectations ambiguous enough that we would feel compelled to trust more completely in Christ to guide our life. It is through a relationship with him that we gain the strength and wisdom to fully become the individuals he has created us to be.

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This article is excerpted from chapter six of Blaine Smith's The Yes Anxiety: Taming the Fear of Commitment in Relationships, Career, Spiritual Life and Daily Decisions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

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