Why Expectations Are Everything to You

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In elementary school I loved Valentine’s day.  We decorated shoe boxes with glitter and doilies, then put them on our desks for classmates to fill with small candies and cards.  What’s not to love? 

After elementary school is a different story.  I didn’t have a boyfriend in high school, so I dreaded the holiday.  I could barely stem the jealousy and disappointment as other girls received bouquets of flowers, chocolates, and heart shaped cookies.  

It didn’t get better in college.  Somehow, I managed to always be single on Valentine’s Day.  I imagined that being married would be different.  That I would “have someone” to celebrate with.  Someone to go out with, to exchange bouquets, chocolates, poems, and cookies with.  I love cookies :-)

But I was wrong.  My husband grew up in a family that didn’t celebrate much of anything.  Gift giving, even on birthdays was not much of a thing…so forget Valentine’s Day.  (And no amount of explaining helped him realize that it was important to me, it just isn’t part of his framework.)

I used to try to psych myself up for the whole event.  Silently chanting, “don’t expect anything, don’t expect anything” to myself — but it didn’t really help.  I still secretly hoped there would be some gesture, and when there wasn’t one I’d quietly cry myself to sleep at night; while simultaneously chastising myself for being petty and childish. 

I had recognized at a cognitive level that expectations were the cause of my suffering, but it wasn’t until I saw the true nature of expectations that things got better. 

So what are expectations? 

Expectations are nothing more than the future existing in our minds as a fantasy.  That’s it.  It’s like Hollywood hijacks our central nervous system and starts playing films.     

Sometimes, imagining future scenarios is helpful.  I can see that keeping a spare tire in the car could be useful, or writing a will is probably a good idea. But as far as actually predicting the future, or guessing how I’ll feel, expectations are neither helpful nor accurate.  

What we notice too is our feelings follow our thinking…always!  They’re forever linked.  If I imagine an upcoming vacation, where  I’m lying next to the pool, reading a new magazine on a warm, sunny day, I'll likely start to feel excitement, anticipation, and general good feelings.  (Although you might have another reaction to that imagined scenario…it might be your idea of ultimate boredom!) 

So how does this play out in our relationships? 

Disappointment.  We end up disappointed when someone doesn’t meet our expectations. I imagine that a dinner/vacation/relationship/conversation with someone I love will be amazing.  I look forward to the fantasy I've created in my mind. But then, when it doesn’t play out as expected, when my reality doesn’t match the fantasy, I think something has gone wrong…and look for someone or something to blame. We all do that!

Worry, or anxiety.  I can also create a very tense state if I imagine how upset, angry, or frustrated someone might be (including myself!) in an upcoming situation.  Then I walk around in this low mood even though I'm simply experiencing a daydream of the future. I might envision an awkward social situation, a “difficult” conversation, or something that’s been annoying in the past — I then create and hold the illusion in my mind and enter the real situation already expecting the worst.  Not only do I spend time in a worried state prior to the event, these expectations often get in the way of me even noticing the nice moments, the moments that are not matching up to my worse case scenario.  

Missing out. Our expectations can be so thick we can’t even see the person in front of us.  I’ve likely decided ahead of time who a person is, their personality traits and identity... and then I miss all the queues that point to otherwise.  It’s a common idea that children are the only ones who grow and change, but adults are always changing too.  Are you exactly the same person you were 10 years ago?  With all the exact same beliefs? Me either!  When we shine the light on our expectations, and see them for what they are it's easier to see the newness in people, even people we've known for ages. 

The good news is we don’t have to track down, wrestle, or manipulate our expectations. Once we realize their ephemeral nature — simply fantasies of future scenarios — we naturally relax.  We experience a more peaceful mind and find ourselves in the flow of what’s happening in front of us. We show up in our relationships open to being surprised, open to seeing something different, and open to seeing someone for who they are today, instead of the stagnant hologram playing in our heads.