As a spiritual counselor, teacher, and public speaker for the past 20 years, I have firsthand knowledge of the suffering that takes place in our community every single day. I’ve heard from individuals of all backgrounds and ages, including men, women, children, youth, and elders, about their individual disappointments, heartache, stress, physical pain, and emotional anguish caused mostly by toxic, fractured, or completely severed relationships. One common issue that I’ve found every group grapples with, despite what their individual circumstances may be, is setting realistic expectations for themselves and others. When you really think about it, much of our pain isn’t necessarily caused by what others do or don’t do but instead by what we wished they did and didn’t do. In other words, we project our expectations on to other people; we set standards for them based on our own standards for ourselves, or we expect reciprocity without first considering their individual circumstances, abilities, capabilities, etc. Then when our expectations aren’t met, we are disappointed and hurt. And the degree and severity of our pain is directly related to what and how much we expected: the more we expect, the more we hurt.
So, how then can we practically lower our expectations of others? How can we protect our hearts from feeling disappointment when people don’t come through for us the way we think they should?
The answer is simple: lower our expectations of others and stop the habit of asking people for things. When we become more self-sufficient and rely solely on God, the natural consequences are that we free ourselves from needing other people, which means we have less expectations of them and thus suffer fewer disappointments.
This may seem unrealistic and even idealistic to some, but is it? Is it too difficult to work on oneself and become more disciplined and autonomous, or is it more difficult to try to change the behavior of every single person we become attached to? I would say the latter is much harder to do, and yet we do it every single day and pay for it emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
What if we taught people to not lean easily or frequently on others just because they’re available and willing to help, but to stand and walk tall on their own? What if we taught people to set stricter limits for how much they asked from their loved ones? What if we taught parents to stop treating their children like tiny servants they summon whenever they want? What if we taught men to not expect to be waited on the minute they walk into the house? What if we taught women to speak up and advocate more for themselves? What if we taught our children to grow into capable, strong, and self-actualized individuals instead of tending to their every need and licking their every wound? What if we promoted a culture where people are encouraged every day to be givers rather than takers?
When Allah ﷻ announced the creation of Adam, عليه السلام, to the angels and called him a leader, did He not set the expectation for the rest of us to rise as leaders also? Knowing that the Prophet ﷺ, who was an orphan and faced betrayal after betrayal, poverty, persecution, and devastating loss, still managed to give everything he had up until his last breath, should we not learn from his example? Was he not more concerned about fulfilling his rights to others than taking account of what he was owed by them? He spent his entire life fulfilling the needs of everyone who asked him. Who can do that except someone who is utterly and completely dependent on God and no one else?
Self-sufficiency is a hallmark quality of a believer. Being needy, begging, and burdening others with our requests/demands are signs of weak faith.
Abu Said Al-Khudri (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that someone from the Ansar asked for something from Allah’s Messenger ﷺ and he gave them. They again asked him for something, and he again gave them. And then again they asked him, and he gave them till all that was with him finished. And then he said: “If I had anything, I would not keep it away from you. (Remember) Whoever abstains from asking others, Allah will make him contented, and whoever tries to make himself self-sufficient, Allah will make him self-sufficient. And whoever remains patient, Allah will make him patient. Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience.” (Bukhari)
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “By the One in whose Hand my life is, it is better for one of you to take a rope and carry firewood on his back than for him to go to someone and beg, who will either give him or refuse to give him anything.” (Bukhari)
Ibn Mas’ud (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ, said: “Whoever is afflicted with poverty and seeks relief from people, then he will never be relieved, but whoever seeks relief from Allah, then Allah will soon give him relief, either by quickly sufficing him or causing his death.” (Abu Dawud)
We can see from all of these examples that it is better to be self-sufficient than to expect and ask from others. What if, however, this was more than just an ideal way of being, but instead a direct command from the Prophet ﷺ? What if he ordered us literally to not ask people for anything? Would we listen and obey as we are commanded to?
The Prophet ﷺ when asked what was being committed in a pledge from Muslims said:
أَنْ تَعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَلَا تُشْرِكُوا بِهِ شَيْئًا وَتُصَلُّوا الصَّلَوَاتِ الْخَمْسَ وَتَسْمَعُوا وَتُطِيعُوا وَلَا تَسْأَلُوا النَّاسَ شَيْئً
“That you worship Allah and do not associate any partners with Him, pray five prayers, listen and obey (the Prophet and his laws), and that you do not ask people for anything.“ (Muslim)
How many people abuse others every day out of sheer laziness? How many innocent people are exploited by the cruelty of others who would rather subject someone else to discomfort than be inconvenienced themselves? How many generous people are taken advantage of every day by people who are greedy and motivated by their own selfish desires?
It was said that the Companions were so careful to obey this command that they wouldn’t ask for help even in the smallest matters. Awf ibn Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) who narrated the hadith, said:
فَلَقَدْ كَانَ بَعْضُ أُولَئِكَ النَّفَرِ يَسْقُطُ سَوْطُهُ فَمَا يَسْأَلُ أَحَدًا أَنْ يُنَاوِلَهُ إِيَّاهُ
“Indeed, some obeyed this to the extent that if his whip were to fall from his mount (horse or camel), he would not ask anyone to hand it to him.”
We all must learn from the beautiful example of our Beloved Prophet ﷺ, who always preferred everyone else before himself. He was the most hospitable and generous. He went out of his way constantly to make others happy, to remove their burdens, and to help them. He never took advantage of the kindness of others but was always kind, gentle, and giving in return. He relied on his Lord for everything, even when he had nothing.
How much better would our lives be if we learned to set the right expectations from ourselves and others? How much more fulfilled would we be if we learned to put our trust solely in God and lowered our expectations of others? How much happier would we be if we lived more simply and put our focus on our duties to God and the people He’s entrusted us with instead of pursuing our desires? How much pain would we spare ourselves if we stopped being demanding, self-centered, and needy of others?
May God increase us in our reliance on Him and decrease us in our dependence on others. Amin.
*Disclaimer: The advice above does not apply to anyone who has physical or mental health issues, or other limitations that require them to seek assistance. It is a general advice for people who have a tendency to form unhealthy codependent relationships as well as those who are accustomed to using, taking advantage of, or exploiting others for their own benefit.
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