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Stop Expecting an Elephant to Behave Like a Giraffe

A metaphor from my therapist that helped me stop expecting others to behave as I wanted them to and accept them as they are

My therapist helped me navigate my divorce and all the crazy that came before, during, and after. She was a godsend. Through her own divorce several decades prior, she had an experience that seemed to mirror my own, and I respected her guidance immensely. One of the many impactful things that I learned from her was to stop expecting an elephant to behave like a giraffe.

For months and months, I would show up to our sessions worked up over something my ex-husband either did to me, my children or through the courts and would go on to her about how I couldn’t understand how he did what he did. His actions debilitated me with anger. I would often cry that I couldn’t believe or understand why he did the egregious things he did.

She finally looked at me and asked, Why can’t you believe it? How is what he’s doing differently than what he has always done?

I thought about it.

It’s not, I responded.

Think of it this way, she urged. Your ex-husband is an elephant but you keep expecting him to act like you, a giraffe. And you get more and more frustrated when he continues to act like an elephant. Instead of twisting yourself into a pretzel in angst over what he does, accept who he is (an elephant), and by doing that, you free yourself to move forward and heal.

For whatever reason, this simple, child-like metaphor resonated deeply with me.

This shift in perspective gradually began to take the emotional charge out of my response to his actions, and I stopped expecting more than he was capable of doing. Additionally, it helped me slowly fill the void of the unknown I faced with a sense of peace in moving beyond fear, anger, and resentment. It allowed me to meet my void head-on with a newfound focus on moving out of my old life and into the planning of a new one.

It wasn’t until my friend placed that burden on me that I recognized the impact of expecting others to be what you need them to be

This metaphor hit home differently with a friend of mine, who throughout our friendship, reminded me quite often that I wasn’t acting like the friend she needed. She told me that I wasn’t available enough when we were raising young kids and when she became single, let me know that as her friend, she needed me to be open to going out with her regularly when her children were with their father. As a result, I found myself trying to be who she needed me to be, which was to be available when she wanted me to be. Her needs became the focal point of our relationship. It was exhausting, insatiable, and never enough.

I was trying to be her elephant while denying my giraffe-ness. I was trying to live up to the impossible standard of making her happy and filling her void that was hers alone to fill.

By not expecting elephants to behave like giraffes, I received far more than I could have ever expected.

I wanted my children to be who I thought they should be. I wanted mini-giraffes, and they were far from meeting my giraffe expectations. It wasn’t until I let go and let them be the elephants they are that they soared joyously into lovely young elephants far exceeding what I ever expected. Today we have a real closeness and trust that only comes from accepting them exactly as they are.

I recognize I am far from perfect, acknowledge what is mine to own, and continue to work on not passing what is mine onto others. It was freeing for me to let go of expecting my children and ex-husband to be anything other than who they are. It was freeing for me to let go of a friendship that did not embrace my giraffe-ness.

There are voids inside each of us that yearn to be filled, and by putting that burden on other people, you lose out on experiencing the joys and depth of who they are and the gifts they bring to the relationship by being themselves.

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