Expectations, Friend or Foe

“When the world doesn’t live up to our expectations, we rebel against its unfairness by turning to food.” – Jessica Ortner

question mark symbolizing why

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” – Donald Miller

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine.” – Bruce Lee

“That was the thing about the world: it wasn’t that things were harder than you thought they were going to be, it was that they were hard in ways that you didn’t expect.” – Lev Grossman

“Set the Standard! Stop expecting others to show you love, acceptance, commitment & respect when you don’t even show that to yourself.” – Steve Maraboli

“Life is not obligated to give us what we expect.” – Margaret Mitchell

Admittedly, these quotes, found all over on the internet, are probably taken out of context. However, I think each of them address this interesting challenge with expectations. In one context, understanding and stating our expectations can be quite helpful. In other contexts, expectations likely do more damage.

Expect has several different dictionary definitions, and that may explain some of the challenge. One definition is to consider probable or certain. How much difference do you think there is between probable and certain? If you consider an outcome certain and it doesn’t happen what is your response? Is it different than if you consider the outcome probable? It is for me.

A second definition is to consider something reasonable, due, or necessary. Again, if you think something is reasonable and then are disappointed your reaction is likely to be very different than if you think something is due to you. Or another definition, to anticipate or look forward to the coming or occurrence of something. What reaction do you experience when that doesn’t come or doesn’t occur? In all of these definitions there is considerable variability that largely derives from our own perceptions, beliefs, and ability to accurately evaluate the current situation.

I also found a definition that an expectation is to suppose or hold something as an opinion, belief, or assumption. This is where a lot of people get into trouble. Many people have difficulty differentiating between an opinion/belief and a fact. Just look around. You will see this everywhere.

We are often told to state our expectations clearly. This is a sound recommendation. Other people can’t read our minds, so being clear about our expectations can help. But stating your expectations, no matter how clear you are, won’t necessarily mean that they will be met. When your expectations are not met it can lead to feelings of disappointment, frustration, anger, betrayal, and mistrust. Other people have competing beliefs and expectations. It is important to ask yourself if these are your rules, red lines in the sand, or a statement of your wishes and desires.

Ask yourself these questions:

questions answers sign

Are your expectations realistic? How do you know?

Does the other person have a free choice to respond? Do they have the right to disagree? or fail?

What will you do if the expectation is not met?

Are you stuck in a thought trap such as “life should be fair” or “people should agree with me?” What was the likelihood that I have over-estimated the probability of something?

Disappointment is certain. People will not always live up to your expectations. Situations you desire won’t always happen. You will not always be treated fairly. As most of us were told when we were growing up “life is not fair,” but we still expect it to be. People will sometimes break your trust. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t state our expectations. I think it is essential for effective communication and relationships. What I’m suggesting is that we need to monitor our responses to disappointment when those expectations aren’t met. As you can see from the first quote above from Jessica Ortner, some people turn to self-destructive behaviors when our expectations aren’t met. Obviously overeating won’t change the fact that life isn’t fair. If our reactions are self destructive it is a pretty clear indicator that we have personalized the situation or other person’s behavior. This is usually not helpful.

I have lots of expectations of myself and others. I don’t always live up to my own expectations, but when I’m operating in mindfulness those failures are an opportunity to evaluate the expectations, relationships, and situations and don’t usually lead to self destructive behaviors. Even when I state my expectations people don’t always comply. While hard, it is generally beneficial to recognize their free will and that won’t always conform to my hopes, wishes, or desires. This strategy does remind me of my friend Zach who once very correctly and lovingly said to me, “It’s not always about you.”