The Thing About Expectations

We all have them. We expect the sun to rise, that we’ll get to our destination safely, that people will be relatively decent and cooperative (most of the time), and that things will more or less go our way. We also have a picture in our heads of what is necessary to be happy, and some of those requirements feel non-negotiable: the career, the relationships, the money, the spouse, kids, cure, solution, goal… When these don’t show up, our expectations are dashed, and we hurt.


Expectations serve as motivators; they move us to action toward reaching a goal. However, when we are rigidly attached to a specific outcome, we cannot accept any deviation from our expectation, and we cannot open ourselves to other experiences. This is known as the reality gap: the difference between the reality we expect and the reality that is.



All of us experience deviations from our desired reality. A lot. Life happens on life’s terms, not ours. So, what if we were to hold our expectations lightly, with an open and accepting attitude of willingness, rather than willfulness? We work toward the reality we want – a happy home, a fulfilling career, health and well-being – but we accept the reality that shows up and experience other things, too. We may suffer the pain of disappointment, even loss and grief, but we are not so attached to our version of reality that any other reality is obscured. That only adds suffering to the core pain. Suffering is an added layer of hurt that results from holding so tightly to a vision of what must be that we cannot consider or absorb any other joys, pleasures, discoveries, or experiences. If we want, hope for, even long for something to manifest in our lives, but can approach it with a willingness to accept what else there is, we can lessen suffering and know greater peace.


This is difficult, may even seem impossible at times, yet some people seem to manage it. They “go with the flow” as it were and are more at peace than others who have trouble accepting departures from their intended outcomes. This is not to say that the happy-go-luckies of the world are resigned, passive, or detached. Acceptance of what is does not imply passive resignation; rather, it is an active intent to allow for disappointment and even deep pain and sorrow, as well as alternatives to our expectations. In the face of grief and sometimes unspeakable loss, it is the ability to open to the pleasures, peace, or experiences of the moment, in spite of pain, not instead of it. The willful resistance to what we don’t want is a rigid focus on pain that adds a ring of suffering to that pain. Acceptance of a reality that life chooses for us does not eliminate the pain but allows us to let in different experiences than just pain.


A woman in her mid-thirties recently told me she could not imagine ever being happy if she was not in a romantic relationship. She felt that nothing else would fulfill her. Her expectation was to find love, for without it, life was empty. She had a perfectly understandable expectation shared by many, but was so rigidly attached to this immutable outcome that she missed a lot along the way. She said she would never conform to a life without a partner and insisted that she would never relinquish this desire (which no one was asking her to do). Sadly, this caused her to miss the actual sensations of meeting and falling in love with someone. She also missed the comfort of friendships, the thrill of adventure, the joy of professional successes, the discovery of new pleasures, the peace and freedom of aloneness. Not that she didn’t have these things in her life as well, but she could not savor them fully because the expectation was that only a romantic relationship would bring her total happiness. She did not allow herself to both hold her desire lightly, and to engage fully in what was; her focus was only on what wasn’t.


Another woman I know lost her adult son when he took his life by suicide. This woman, in her late 70’s, said, “I love life.” I marveled at how anyone could feel this having experienced such a terrible loss. She had pain, for sure, but she could forego added suffering and still find joy and beauty in her world. She allowed for both.


How can we relax our expectations and still work toward our goals? How can an Olympic athlete envision gold and accept defeat? How can a mother lose a child and still find meaning in life? There is no easy formula, but clearly it is possible as we see many people thrive in the wake of unbearable grief. It would seem that the very ability to loosen our grip on our expectations, paradoxically, is what opens other doors to fulfillment we might never otherwise find. One thing is clear: there is pain – inevitable in life – and there is the suffering we add when we cannot, will not, relax our hold on our vision of reality.


Can this be learned? Yes. We can build a habit of accepting that we can feel pain and at the same time notice the myriad other sensations of the moment, which are always here. Practicing this now, every day, with an intent and mindful focus on what is, on life just as it is, seems like a worthwhile pursuit.

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