There are two ways to be happy: improve your reality, or lower your expectations.
Expectations are tricky. They can help and they can hurt.
The dictionary defines expectation as “the act or state of looking forward to, anticipating.”
Expectations are important. If we didn’t have any expectations for ourselves, we’d probably never get out of bed in the morning. Expectations can be powerful. Remember the teachers who were told their random classrooms were full of extra bright children? Those ordinary children performed way above the usual expectation. There is often a self-fulfilling quality to expectations. For example, expect to have a great time on vacation and you probably will. Expect to have a miserable time, and that, too, is probable. Expectations can be hugely motivating, as when you expect to develop a marketable skill by going to school…..you keep going even when it’s tough, because the expected outcome is worth it. On the other hand, expectations can be demotivating, if you expect something to happen, and it doesn’t.
Expectations can also be the source of great pain. For instance, it often hurts when we’re living someone else’s expectations. A friend of mine studied medicine because his mother thought he’d be a great doctor. He never liked it. He didn’t really want to be a doctor. Eventually, he left that to pursue psychology. The rift with his mother took years to heal, but he felt he’d made the right choice, because he lived his own expectations and not his mother’s. A source of great discomfort for many adults is still trying, often unsuccessfully, to meet their parents’ expectations.
Another common source of pain is when someone doesn’t live up to our expectations. This may be the biggest cause of discord in relationships. Here’s a clue. If you’re upset with someone, check to see what expectation of yours they’re not meeting. Often we don’t even realize we have an expectation. Or we assume everyone shares the same expectation. Alice, a woman I once worked with, was engaged to be married. She was excited on Valentine’s Day because her fiance told her he had planned a great evening The next day I asked how it went. “Terrible,” she said. I asked what happened. “He made me a wonderful dinner – cooked it himself – served it on a beautifully set table, with candlelight. “That sounds great,” I said. “So what went wrong?” “He didn’t give me any red lingerie,” she answered. I was stunned. I told her I’d never gotten red lingerie for Valentine’s Day, and she was shocked. She had somehow developed the expectation that if you were really loved, you would get red lingerie for Valentine’s Day. That’s a fairly silly example, but it makes the point. Often we aren’t even aware of how our expectations are blinding us from what we ARE receiving.
I am amazed at how often people get married or start living together without ever talking about their expectations. Maybe it’s just too awkward, or maybe we don’t know what we expect until we’re not getting it. Early in my relationship with my husband Hal, we discovered a big problem. When we took a trip, we would arrive at our destination and he would be all excited to go exploring. I’d want a nap. Traveling was more stressful to me. He didn’t like naps. Once we experienced this a few times, we had a conversation uncovering both of our expectations, and agreeing that we needed to do it better or else one or the other became crabby. Once Hal realized I really needed the nap, and would rally quickly, he was fine. He even learned to enjoy a short nap himself.
My fascination with expectations began while considering my own hands. I have developed some arthritis in my hands which is only there sometimes, but at times really hurts. It’s annoying because I use my hands a lot and expect them to work perfectly. Then I realized that if I changed the expectation – accepting the fact that I’m getting older and some changes are inevitable – and also do everything I know to improve the reality – exercise my hands, watch what I eat, etc.….I am actually okay with my hands. Lowering my expectations, changing what I can, and accepting the reality made me a lot happier just as Jodi Picoult promises in the above quote.
- Notice your expectations and own them. Ask, “Whose expectation am I living here?”
- Name your expectations. When we name them, we gain control over them instead of feeling controlled by an unseen force. Then we can raise or lower them if we want, flex them, compromise, negotiate.
- Get curious about others’ expectations. If there’s a clash, ask, “What does your expectation look like? Maybe we’re thinking about this differently.”
- Raise your expectations where it makes sense, asking “What’s the best I can really do here?“
- Lower your expectations where it makes sense. Accept what you cannot change or control. Ask, “How can I close the gap between reality and my expectations?“