“Happiness equals reality minus expectations” – Tom Magliozzi, host of car talk, a really awesome radio show that people born after 1990 probably won’t remember…
Everything in your life that causes you misery is a result of your expectations. This may seem like too general of a statement, but it is true. Think about the last thing that really upset you and then think about WHY exactly it upset you. Maybe you expected your boyfriend to bring you flowers and he didn’t, or you expected you would get a promotion that someone else got, or you expected your taxes would be less than they were, or you expected that everyone around you would be kind and act in your best interest.
Expectations affect us every day, with both large and minor events, from traffic jams to deaths in the family. We have so many expectations of both ourselves and others and when they are not met, we end up disappointed. And then after we are disappointed, we replay the moment over and over again in our minds, eventually causing ourselves much more pain than the original event itself did. Learning to let go of expectations may be one of the most powerful ways to improve the quality of our daily lives.
Expect the unexpected
Now, I am not of course suggesting that we all go around expecting terrible things to happen all the time just so we can be prepared for what might be coming, or so we can “realistic” ideas of what will happen to us. Expecting the worst every day is no way to live. I am a huge proponent of believing that awesome things are about to happen all the time, of believing that something wonderful is always just around the corner, of looking for the little positive things that happen every day in our lives.
However, I do think it is important to recognize that unexpected events happen ALL THE TIME. It is not a question of IF unexpected things will happen, but WHEN. They happen every day and if we go around being shocked every time something doesn’t go “according to plan”, we will live in constant pain and misery.
When you are driving to work and someone cuts you off and you get angry at them for being an idiot driver, what is it that makes you so upset? If you went into your commute recognizing that there would probably be a few people who would cut you off, or made last-minute decisions, or speed past you, then when those things happened they probably wouldn’t be as frustrating.
My mom has a strategy where she pretends that every time she gets into the car, she is entering into a video game in which her goal is to get safely from point A to point B. If another car does something unsafe or frustrating, it is simply a part of the video game intended to keep her from her goal. This allows her to expect the unexpected and to know that obstacles will pop up along her commute without getting upset when they occur – there is no need to get angry, because it’s all just part of the game!
Sure, sometimes we may expect something bad to happen and when it does, we are still upset, even though we saw it coming and our expectations were correct. But underneath all of that is an even bigger expectation that nothing will ever go wrong in our lives, and that is being broken on a regular basis. If we can reshape our minds to be prepared for the fact that things will often go differently than we thought they would, it will help us to deal with our disappointments in a healthier way and to understand that it is just a natural part of life, rather than constantly feeling like the world has it out for us and nothing ever goes right in our lives.
Of course, it is still going to be devastating when someone we love dies, or when our partner decides to leave us, or when we hear about a tragic event on the news. These are horrible things and I’m not saying we should just learn to not get upset by them. But there are a ton of little things that we let upset us every day and we could all make our lives considerably better by learning to expect these little upsets and not letting them bother us so much when they inevitably occur.
Nowhere is this issue more prevalent than in our relationships, whether romantic or platonic. We have so many expectations built up for other people that we have no control over. When our friends, family, or partners don’t act the way we want them to, we get frustrated because that is not how WE would have acted in that situation. We imagine certain events, conversations, or evenings over and over in our minds and when they turn out not to go the way we thought they would, we feel hurt or misunderstood.
Obviously, there are realistic and unrealistic expectations for the people in our lives. It is normal and healthy to have certain standards in your relationships with people – even better if you can communicate these honestly with each other! If a person is constantly disappointing you, it may be that you may need to distance yourself from that relationship, but it may also be that you need to take a step back and re-evaluate your expectations of that person and the relationship. Have you clearly communicated your expectations and are they something the other person has agreed to? How do you react when those expectations are not met? Is it the actual behavior that you are upset about or is there some other need or fear underlying your emotions around the behavior?
So often we assume it is the other person who needs to change to meet our needs, and sometimes this may be true, but what if it’s our own expectations that need to change? Not that we shouldn’t have standards in our relationships, but maybe there is a reason why we are feeling constantly disappointed that has more to do with us than the other person.
I used to get so upset when friends of mine were late to things, or canceled on me, and sometimes I still do. But something I’ve really been working on (and SOMETIMES succeeding at) is letting go of the expectation that people will be on time and realizing that if they are not, it is not because they don’t love me or respect me or value me as a person. It is not intended to be a personal slight or a sign that our friendship is not important to them. Thinking that is the case will only cause me to feel more annoyed and self-righteous, because in that situation I can quickly convince myself that I am the better person, the “on-time” person who has her shit together and cares about other people. When in reality, I’m late sometimes too, and it never has anything to do with how much I care about the person whom I am meeting. It is important to remember in these situations that the behavior is not personal and that it generally in no way reflects the way that person feels about us or our friendship!
How silly is it, really, to think that we have any control over what another human beings thinks, or feels, or does? Sadly, there are many people whose lives revolve around attempting control of others, because this brings them some sort of pleasure or power. This need for control is based entirely in fear – fear of the unknown, fear of not being loved, fear that there will never be enough. Some people may even succeed in exerting a large amount of control over others for a period of time, whether they are a cult leader skilled in brainwashing, a fascist dictator, an emotionally manipulative partner, or someone pointing a gun to someone else’s head. But at the end of the day, even these people can’t control everything and their world will eventually fall apart. And do you think those people are truly happy? When we act out of a place of fear instead of love, we will never be truly happy.
According to plan
To quote the Joker from The Dark Knight: “Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying”. Now, this guy might be an insane criminal, but he has a pretty good point and I can actually get on board with his goal of introducing a little chaos into the system. We’re all so afraid of the unknown, of the things we can’t control, that we would rather see a terrible plan carried out than to have no plan at all, or to have something completely unexpected happen. Often, we don’t even stop to question a plan we have been presented with, or a set of expectations we have formed, because it just feels good to have some sort of system in place.
The truth is, there is so little in our world that we can actually control. This may be a scary thought, but it is so true. The only things we truly have control over on any given day is our reactions to the events that take place in our lives. And sometimes, we can’t even control that – sometimes our brain chemistry goes haywire and we experience feelings or emotions or hallucinations that we can’t explain. By recognizing and accepting the fact that we have very little control, by letting go of the need for security and certainty, only then can we start to respond in positive ways when those uncontrollable factors in our lives don’t go the way we thought they would.
I am certainly not against having a good plan, or a goal you are working towards, but we often get so caught up in these “life plans” that we forget to just live in the present and enjoy what is going on right now. How often have you made a 5-year, or even a 1-year plan, and then not had it turn out the way you thought it would? I personally have pretty much let go of planning that far in advance, because I know from experience that it almost always changes. While I like to have some ideas in mind of what I might do in the coming year, I try not to get too attached because I want to be open to whatever possibilities the universe sends my way. If you want a really good book to read on the topic of letting go, “The Surrender Experiment” by Michael Singer is a great place to start and has been a valuable resource for me and many of my friends.
In the words of the great Jim Carrey, “as far as I can tell, it’s just about letting the universe know what you want and working toward it while letting go of how it might come to pass.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with having dreams, goals, and ideas of what you want in your life. In fact, those things are very important. But when we become too attached to exactly how something will happen, we end up missing out on the beautiful possibilities that could arise if we are willing to stray a little bit from the path.
Changing your expectations
It is one thing to say we want to change our expectations, and quite another to actually do so. It’s not a switch we can simply turn on and off at will. But, like so many things worth doing, it IS something we can practice and get better at over time.
We can start by simply noticing when we are disappointed by something and checking in with what we thought would happen and how that compares to the reality. Although our first reaction may be anger or sadness, by noticing and reflecting on that reaction, we can reel ourselves back in and examine what it was that caused it. This awareness will increase as we practice over time and eventually that knee-jerk reaction will dissipate as we learn that we can never truly know what is in our future.
The second step is to notice when we are fantasizing about something in the future and to recognize that what we are imaging may not end up being what we actually get. This is not to say we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get excited about things – that is half the fun of knowing something awesome is coming up! – but we can do so while still recognizing that we can’t predict the future. We can feel excited about something and then bring ourselves back to the present moment to enjoy and focus on whatever we are doing right now.
What a lot of this boils down to is focusing on the present moment instead of the past or the future. And you know what helps with that? That’s right, my friends: meditation! Meditation is the ultimate tool for mindfulness, self-awareness, and reducing our pesky expectations. It’s the coconut oil of the soul – good for pretty much everything.
If we practice putting our energy into noticing our breath, our bodies, our environment, and the way we are feeling in the present moment, we won’t even have time to ruminate about past mistakes or fantasize about future possibilities. Our expectations may well still be there, but they will simply be a blur in the background rather than a focal point.
So, as you go through the rest of your day today, how can you bring more awareness to your expectations and the role they play in your life and your overall wellbeing? How can you invite more uncertainty and chaos into your life and practice rejoicing in the unknown rather than fearing it? Where can you shift your mindset so that the unexpected events that occur every day bring you curiosity and joy rather than pain and suffering?