Some time ago I came across the concept of demand sensitivity, a psychological lens which magnifies, in your imagination, what other people insist you do. On a scale of one to ten, you might perceive that they’re insisting on a nine when really they just have a three in mind.
The lens of demand sensitivity can also cause total illusions, creating imaginary demands out of thin air. A ten out of a zero.
I’m talking about demands such as generosity, urgency, and, that jewel of over-sensitive fabrication, perfection.
Having witnessed it in so many of my clients, the idea of demand sensitivity made sense to me. Since then it’s been very helpful to me and my clients in our therapeutic work.
But I’ve come to recognize that the word demand doesn’t convey the scope of the problem.
Demand Sensitivity and Expectation Sensitivity
The demand sensitivity lens can also distort how you see the expectations, hopes and desires of others, no matter how benevolent, as if they were demands.
A parent, boss, friend or partner might expect your success in an encouraging way, but what you feel is pressure.
That’s the thing about demand sensitivity, it can take even the most benign hope, and turn it into a threat.
“I hope you can come to my party” gets translated into, “If you don’t come I’ll never talk to you again, I’ll unfollow you on Instagram, and I’ll hand over my entire savings account to the world’s vilest witch whose Vengeance Voodoo is gonna make Putin look like a Campfire Girl!”
Uh oh. Maybe I should go.
The Fear of Not Living Up To Expectations
Clearly, having demanding parents can lead to this sort of thing. Children learn to look ahead, magnifying any hint of demand so they can see it from a distance, and pre-empt the criticism, punishment, and abandonment they fear if they don’t pass muster.
But there are other sources for such sensitivity as well. Many parents aren’t demanding but have expectations, which, while more positive, can also lead their kids to craft a lens that’s hyper-focused on what others want from them.
You might have imagined your parents would be disappointed in you if you didn’t succeed so brilliantly. Whether they actually expected this of you or not is not the point. The point is that you may have come to see their hopes and assumptions as expectations and their love as conditional.
Looking through your sensitivity binoculars, you might imagine that they would eventually and inevitably stare at you with absolute bewilderment and utter disappointment, and say, “Oh…You aren’t as good as we thought you were.”
Expectations, though not as brutal as demands, can still bring pressure. In fact, because some parents are so gushing, and because they think you’re the best thing since to happen to the world since Shirley Temple, you may feel even more pressure to succeed so as not to disappoint such amazingly supportive people.
Then you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, trying frantically to prevent being exposed as the fraud you always feared you were.
So whether it’s demand sensitivity, expectation sensitivity, or anything in between, that lens may prevent you from accurately gauging what others want from you, even after you leave the nest. (From here on out I’ll be using the terms demands and expectations interchangeably.)
The Martha Complex: Demand Sensitivity and the Loss of Self
Martha begins her day today, like every day, talking to her plants lest they feel neglected. She sweeps her sidewalk so that the neighbors don’t get upset about the pine needles, as if that innocuous strip of pavement could ever capture their interest more than the season finale of Survivor.
Once at work she won’t let an email go unanswered for three minutes. She works in customer service and her boss has told them they need to be prompt in their responses. But three minutes is not what he had in mind.
Friends have invited her to their party tonight and she couldn’t possibly say no, much less leave early or fail to speak to every soul there. Once she gets home it’s back to the computer because she can’t tolerate the mental image of anyone drumming their fingers impatiently while waiting for a response. Finally, she signs a Hallmark birthday card for her cousin Carlos, fearing he might think her unthoughtful if she merely called.
Once again, Martha completes her day with no sense of what’s really important to her.
I’ve chosen the name for my example advisedly. Jesus had something to say about this subject and Martha was the name of his example.
Martha was dutifully serving up chow in the kitchen while her sister Mary was in the living room chowing down on every word of wisdom Jesus had to offer. When Martha complained to Jesus that Mary wasn’t helping, he said, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful, and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Both Marthas had lenses that skewed what others wanted from them, and blinded them to that “good part,” the things that would really be fulfilling.
Do You Get Anything Out of It? Unconscious Attractions to Demands
But why? Was it just pushy parenting, or might the Marthas also have gotten something out of seeing their world that way?
There are many possible sources of demand sensitivity, but one particular factor can certainly magnify the magnifications: while part of you might not like expectations, another part of you may unconsciously welcome them as a consolation prize to make up for your suffering. It proves your point; it’s always your fate for others to be so demanding of you. And you get the seductive gratification of knowing you’re the martyr/victim.
Or you may feel it makes you important because everyone wants you to do things for them. You are “in demand.”
The key here is to be compassionately honest with yourself about whether there is something you get out of demand sensitivity. If you do, count yourself among the human. Mixed motives are ubiquitous.
This is not to say that you don’t get some pure, genuine satisfaction out of helping others or pleasing them. The task is to be conscious about when you want to meet expectations, and when you feel you need to meet them to allay fears or find consolation.
If pleasing others is something you choose to do, and if it gives your life meaning, go for it. Meet those expectations consciously and with all due satisfaction.
Just beware that sweet edge of resentment which suggests your motivations might not be so pure.
Demand Sensitivity in the Server/Friend/People-Pleaser Type of Compulsive
The demand sensitivity lens is especially common in the type of obsessive-compulsive personality that invests their perfectionism and control in pleasing others. Unlike other obsessive-compulsive types who handle their anxiety by being bossy, over-working, or planning and obsessing, the server/friend type fears disappointing others above all, and makes it their mission in life never to do so.
A Confusion of Demands: Projecting My Own
It’s my turn to cook dinner, and figuring out what to cook is at least half the battle. Stir fry sounds good. But how would my wife feel about that? I fixed it just two weeks ago. She’d think I’m being lazy.
Something feels familiar about this. It’s my own demand sensitivity lens, not any culinary insistence or conflict about leisure on her part. Give my wife any concoction of vegetables and she’s happy as a cucumber. Easy peasy!
Once I spy my demand sensitivity in action, I can override it. I tell my wife about my stir fry eureka moment for our mutual amusement.
She knows I’ve been working on this post and deftly points out, for our further amusement (man, this is getting better than Ted Lasso!), that this is a projection of my own expectations. As a native of New Orleans I feel entitled, I expect, to be entertained by delicious, exciting, food every evening. She’s not like that.
So, just to be clear about the general principle, another source of demand sensitivity is confusing our own expectations with those of others.
Removing the Demand Sensitivity Glasses
While removing the demand sensitivity lens will not be as easy as taking off a pair of glasses, that’s still a good metaphor to use. Recognize the feeling of a pair of spectacles skewing your vision and recalculate what’s expected.
If it looks like a nine, it may well be just a three.
Another way to take off the glasses is to ask what the other person actually expects of you. Check it out. If they really do expect something unreasonable of you (as the leader/teacher/boss type of compulsive might), then at least you know for certain what you’re dealing with, and it’s time to either push back or go where more realistic expectations won’t drain your soul.
Questioning the Lenses: Inner Work
But checking things out isn’t always possible, and it doesn’t always improve things. Then you’ll need to do inner work instead. So here are some questions to ask yourself:
• Am I confusing what I expect of myself with what others expect of me?
• Am I confusing what I expect of others with what they expect of me?
• Am I transferring old parental, religious, or cultural demands to people in the present who don’t have those same expectations?
• Am I being fair to the other person when I imagine they’re demanding so much of me? Are they really like that?
• Is there anything I get out of seeing myself as oppressed by the expectations of others?
• If the demand and expectations I sense are real, what makes it hard for me to say no and set boundaries?
Losses from Demand Sensitivity and its Healthy Potential
Demand sensitivity leads many to live their lives thinking that they’re letting others down, when in fact they aren’t. Their relationships are compromised by the distortion, if not destroyed by it.
At least as tragic, demand sensitivity destroys your connection with your own desires. Focused on what you think others want from you, you lose track of what you want from you.
In fact, some with demand sensitivity sense what they would lose by focusing on others, and, rather than lose track of themselves, resist meeting any expectations–throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This is known as demand resistance. We’ll have to save this for a follow-up post.
The healthy potential in demand sensitivity is the desire to protect yourself while maintaining good relationships. Let that be your guide.
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Here are some related posts:
5 Unintended Effects of Type A Parenting
People Pleasing, Resentment, & Other Relationship Killers
Self-Compassion: The Evidenced-Based Antidote to Maladaptive Perfectionism
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Thank you Garry,
Your article clarifies that subtle teaser that can infiltrate relationships. Really good to do a demand sensitive/expectation checklist and address accordingly.
Thanks for posting this. Interesting and thoughtful read.