The Art of Ending Everyday Suffering

“If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.”
~Lao Tzu

Do you find yourself disappointed when your expectations aren’t met? Do you resist what happens because you were expecting something different? Then you are not alone.

Expectations are belief systems about how things are supposed to be. And when we believe them without question we set ourselves up for a fall.

I shouldn’t be caught in traffic, it should be sunny today, he should have called when he said he would. Expectations creep into the most mundane parts of our everyday experience and, as you well know, are a great source of stress and unhappiness.

Expectations: It’s All in the Mind

A recent commenter wrote about expectations in two important areas of her life: expecting recognition and financial reward from working hard at her job and assuming that others would be as loyal as she is in relationship. In both cases, she was burned.

She asks, “If you do X-Y-Z, shouldn’t you get the return? How do you remove the attachment to outcomes?”

Expectations seem to develop automatically as a result of life circumstances and our reactions to them. Here’s how it works. Without even realizing it, an idea forms in your mind that expects, hopes for, or thinks it deserves a particular outcome. For example, “I’m doing a great job on this project. I’m sure I’ll get that promotion when it comes up.”

Ouch! This is why you are in trouble.

  • You have a personal desire – something you want but don’t currently have.
  • Your focus is on the future.
  • You forget your right-now experience.

The mind revs up with images and stories of an imagined future where you will get exactly what you want, and that becomes your lived reality. But here’s the problem: it’s not actual reality, and we are not in control.

Reality is fresh and alive, impersonal and full of possibility. It doesn’t decide what to do based on our personal images and stories or what we desire and hope for.

You might not even realize the expectation has formed until real life wields its sword, and what you want to happen doesn’t. Then you react with frustration or disappointment, squarely in resistance to what is, thinking that life isn’t fair and wondering what you did wrong.

Untangling Expectations

Interested in finding your way out of this tangle? Then recognize and investigate your thoughts. An expectation is a thought, and every thought is worth questioning because at its core it is untrue.

Is it true that you should get the promotion or you shouldn’t be sitting in traffic or the weather should be sunny?

The way you know if something is true is if it actually happens.

Your thoughts about what should happen (expectations) have nothing to do with it.  There is thought, which is ephemeral and insubstantial, and there is reality, which is real and true.

See how it doesn’t make sense to believe your expectations?

A Lifestyle Free of Expectations

Stay conscious and alive to your moment-to-moment experience, and expectations will have nowhere to land. How?

  • Make truth and understanding a top priority in your life – in what you read, what you do, who you spend time with.
  • Set aside time every day to reflect on your reactions to see if expectations have taken hold.
  • Investigate all thoughts, and rest in what is real.
  • Surrender personal control, and receive what is offered.

If you want freedom from the trap of expectations, stop believing thoughts. Recognize the truth that you are one with the unfolding of reality. Then live here, infinitely loving, clear and grounded…fully available to life.

Troubled by expectations? What helps you to be free of them? I’d love to hear…

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  1. Haider Asif says

    Hi! Lovely friend Gail Brenner
    Happy to see one more brilliant & thought-provoking post. This is an important area u r talking about.
    Love to u

  2. Crys Galivan says

    Hi Gail,
    Your posts are always relevant and so helpful. Thank you for yet another nugget of wisdom.
    Merry Christmas,

  3. says

    This was such a perfect reminder for me as I have been struggling with this very problem in my family relationships especially now with the added stress of Christmas. I decided to fast and pray today to gain clarity and I feel much calmer and present to “what is” which is such a hard thing for me to do. I had been spinning off into obsessive thinking and worrying which was spiralling out of control and making things seem so much worse than they really are. Our world is just so filled with noise and distraction and I struggle to function in that environment. Thanks for helping me make my way back to a better place.
    Blessings to you, Sandee

    • Gail Brenner says

      Sounds wonderful, Sandee, how you are working with difficult experiences. The comings and goings of the world seem so important and meaningful. But presence is simple – alive and here. As you know, distraction only brings confusion and reaction. But in presence, there is clarity and sanity. Aaaahhh…resting here….

  4. Paul Castleman says

    Your excellent post on expectations reminds me of a truth I frequently repeat to myself: I can’t control my thoughts, but I can control whether I believe them.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Paul,

      A warm welcome to you, my lovely friend!

      A big Yes! to your comment. A thought that contains an expectation might appear, but it doesn’t have to be believed. All we need to do is look at the effects. How does it feel to believe an expectation? What are the effects of not believing it? Then the way of sanity becomes crystal clear.

  5. says

    Elizabeth George wrote – “Expectations destroy our peace of mind. They are future disappointments, planned out in advance.”

    I find that there is a difference between enjoying the anticipation of something and expecting it to happen. I let go of the outcome, then I’m free to enjoy myself!

    • Gail Brenner says

      That is a great distinction, Galen. Anticipating something is leaving it so open – anything can happen – whereas an expectation is a hope of only one outcome occurring. There is so much freedom in wide-open anticipation.

  6. says

    Nice work again Gail. I have been a victim of my expectations numerous times. I am getting better at reducing this however there is always something that I “expect”…hard habit to shake.
    Have a great New Year.
    be good to yourself

  7. Elle says

    Resending…missed a word.

    Hi, Gail. I am finding it hard to reconcile the two notions of not having expectations and keeping the hope alive. How does one reconcile the 2 seemingly opposite (at least, to me) ideas?

    • Gail Brenner says

      Welcome to you, Elle!

      I’m wondering what you mean by “keeping the hope alive.” What are you hoping for?

      Hope can be tricky because it contains a seed of resistance to what is. If you hope for something that is not here, there is a sense that what is here is incomplete or inadequate. A key aspect of happiness is about not being attached to outcomes. And being open in every moment to whatever occurs makes every outcome OK. It completely eliminates that reaction of frustration or disappointment due to not getting what you want.

      Expectations and hope are about wanting certain outcomes to occur and not others. I have found that believing in both of them blocks freedom and the lovely experiencing of the free-flow of reality. Maybe you can look more deeply at your experience of hope. What do you find?

      • Elle says

        Hi, Gail. In my ongoing quest for peace and freedom from anxiety, I have read lots of books. The first one that really resonated with me was The Secret. It talks about visualizations and affirmations to get what you want to happen in your life. I have also read books by Thich Nhat Hanh about quieting the mind and accepting what is. I find both ideas fascinating yet they seem to be at odds with each another. Are these just 2 different paths to peace and one has to choose which one to take? By the way, I love your site. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with strangers.

        • Gail Brenner says

          Thanks for stopping by, Elle. Actually, anyone who comes here is no longer a stranger, but a true friend because of our common interest.

          There is a huge difference between the teachings from The Secret and those of Thich Nhat Hanh. The fundamental difference is that The Secret people believe that there is a separate self that actually has control over getting what you want. Thich Nhat Hanh, and the perspective offered here, is about relaxing all identifications and conditioned habits to realize that who you are is not the separate person that your thoughts lead you to believe that you are.

          Realizing that you are one with life, that you are presence itself, means the end of suffering. There is no conflict or resistance to anything, even anxiety, leaving the space for life to unfold naturally. It is completely clear to me that this understanding is the true healing for everything we define as a problem. But investigate for yourself and trust your inner wisdom to lead you in just the right direction.

          People who have had anxiety for a long time tend to have many stories running in their minds about it. Out of curiosity, take a look at these stories, then, just for a moment, let them go. You might notice the energy of anxiety in your body along with some sensations. See that you are aware of the stories, energy, and sensations, and be the awareness instead of these objects. You are finding the quiet space that is completely accepting of everything. Here is the peace you are looking for.

          You’re on a beautiful journey, and I wish you well with it…

  8. says

    Hi Gail,

    I am just catching up reading this post after Christmas, and you never cease to amaze me with the words you choose. So simple, and yet you did it again. I love these phrases in particular:

    “squarely in resistance to what is” — for some reason I instantly thought of my relationship with my husband when I heard this

    “The way you know if something is true is if it actually happens.” Genius! Why can we not see this every day? Again, thinking about my relationship

    “live here, infinitely loving, clear and grounded…fully available to life.” This is the kind of mother my children deserve.

    I am working so hard on not snapping at my husband and not raising my voice to my children, even when they misbehave — there are words that can be used without shouting that will ultimately have the same effect. My question is always this, though: How do I stop, in the moment, about to yell at someone, and calm down and collect myself? I know this is my problem, and yesterday I was able to walk away by some miracle and not get into it with my husband, but what about the kids? How do I consciously remind myself in the moment to choose love when I “expect” them to be perfect and not do for the 100th time what I always tell them not to do?

    • Gail Brenner says

      There’s no magic answer to your question, Peace, but I can make some suggestions. But first, let’s celebrate the miracle that happened when you were able to walk away from your husband without arguing. That is a huge accomplishment and a solid step on the road to freedom from this habit. Good for you!

      Keep your intention to speak kindly and walk away when you are triggered in the forefront of your mind. Consciously renew your commitment when you wake up in the morning and several times throughout the day. Put notes around the house, or come up with some other way to remind you. Read blogs and books daily, start a gratitude practice, listen to guided meditations (the ones on this site are here) anything you can think of to incline your mind, body, and heart to kindness and peace. You are trying to stop a pattern that has a lot of momentum to it, so you need to be very intentional as you go through your day to keep what you really want alive in you.

      Have patience and be kind to yourself – but also be fierce and don’t let yourself off the hook. You will eventually erode this pattern, as your true interest comes across very clearly.

      Overflowing with love and support….

  9. says

    I love this article very much. It can make me clearly see why I feel unhappy in my daily life. I have now come to realize that I should remove my meaningless expectations. Thank you with all my heart:) May you be happy forever & ever!!

  10. Crystal says

    Hello Gail,

    I have been embracing the “Power of Now” for the past year. I have truly come to understand and value the fact that all we have is the present moment and that I don’t have to be caught up in my past or lost in my thoughts about the future. As a result, I have been able to separate my “life” from all of the life situations that will inevitably come.

    However, despite my best effort, I have continued to struggle in an area, which happens to be work. I have a great job (good salary, benefits, work environment, etc.); however, I continue to get jobs that don’t challenge me mentally and I find myself bored. My work is getting done on-time and often times with much praise. But I don’t know how to just be…I feel overwhelmed by the boredom. I struggle with the feeling of wanting to do more, wanting to contribute more and have more of an impact.

    I work as a quality analyst, so my work is actually very beneficial to the overall mission, but it’s too easy and I get bored. I don’t want to drag on, on, on about this job because the truth is I’ve held many “great jobs” but the end result is always the same, I end up bored and frustrated. I know there is a lesson in this and that it all starts with the thoughts in my mind, but I have been truly unsuccessful with not giving into the thoughts and feelings that follow. Despite the fact that I am grateful, when the boredom sets in, it just takes control of me.

    I really don’t know how to accept what is, in this situation.

    Thanks for listening and sharing. I find your blog very enlightening.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Crystal,

      Let”s start with a quote from the Power of Now: “If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally. If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of those three options, and you must choose now. Then accept the consequences. No excuses. No negativity. No psychic pollution. Keep your inner space clear.”

      What Eckhart suggests can be easier said than done, and it sounds like you are stuck. Here is what I might suggest. See what belief systems you have running about work. It sounds like you think work should be exciting or fulfilling and it’s not. What would happen if you let these belief systems go? What is left?

      Also, you have an opportunity to explore boredom and frustration. What is your direct experience of boredom, of frustration in the moment?

      Are you limiting yourself from doing what is in your heart? Are you thinking (belief system alert) that this work pays well and is beneficial so you should do it, when what is really in your heart is to do something else that lets you sing your particular song to the world?

      When you accept a situation, this means you accept, you don’t resist, your moment to moment experience. Recognize that you are resisting in the moment, and see if you can be with what is arising. From this place of true acceptance, you have the space for wisdom about what to do to arise.

      There is much to contemplate here, and I hear your willingness to do so. Feel free to let us know how it goes. Love to you….

      • Crystal says


        Thank you so much for your response. I guess it is pretty clear that a lot of my understanding of living in the now sprang from me reading “The Power of Now.” I found the teachings in Eckhart’s book freeing and liberating. From his teachings, I came to understand that I lived my life based on my understanding of the roles I was supposed to play. I was so caught up in living up to the very high standard I set for myself and appeasing my ego. And what I was left with was a life with a lot of highs and lows. I always referred to it as being on a rollercoaster. Despite how profound Eckhart’s teachings were for me…like you said, some of the things he proposes are easier said than done. And it left me stuck and yesterday was a perfect example of that. I just wanted/needed a break through, so I resorted to what I always do…search for an answer and that led me to you.

        After writing my post yesterday, I took the time to read some of your other articles and two of them (The Wisdom of Forgetting Everything You Know and The Value of Staying – Even When Its Hard) really opened my eyes to something I was missing, which was the devastation my deep seated beliefs were having over my life. I understood the importance of not placing unrealistic expectations on people and situations, but the problem for me wasn’t the expectations but my belief of how things should be (maybe they are one in the same). I entered into the workforce with preconceived beliefs of what it should be like and what I should be getting out of it; however, it never seemed to work out the way I envisioned it.

        When I came into work this morning, I came in letting go of everything I thought I knew/believed about what I was supposed to get out of work. And in doing so, for the first time, I smiled from a place that does not reside in my mind. It was no longer about this imaginary story that I had dreamed up, but just allowing what is, in all of its essence, to just be. I will keep you posted on my journey. :-)

        I know this is long, but I really felt the need to share.

        Thanks again!

        • Gail Brenner says

          I’m celebrating with you, Crystal! It sounds like you got some very important understanding from the Power of Now, which you have been able to apply to your life. There is so much freedom in what you describe.

          And good for you for recognizing the (devastating) power of beliefs. Every time you walked into work, you were comparing your experience with your belief – and the experience came up lacking. This is suffering, as you know. With no belief, there is no comparing, no disappointment, no suffering – just what is.

          A big Yes! to putting down the beliefs and imaginary story and seeing things as they are. Now there is space for clarity. If you need to make a change, it will become apparent. If not, simply enjoy yourself as things are. So simple. And thank you for sharing this. Love…

  11. Liv says

    Hello Gail. Thank you for this post. I see how my expectations for myself bring me dissatisfaction when i do not meet them. Like i’ve been wishing to travel for the longest time, and it upsets m that i have not yet been bale to do so. What about goal setting then? Is it not important?

    Thank you

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Liv,

      Goals can be useful, but even when you work toward and achieve a goal, it’s all done in the present. I like to set goals, but hold them lightly, knowing that things can change. And sometimes having the goal in mind keeps you from seeing what is appropriate to do now. So bottom line is to be intelligent about goals. If they serve, great. If not, simply see what is needed in the moment, and respond accordingly.

      I want to support your wish to travel. See what is holding you back – fear and/or practical considerations. And see if you can make your heart’s desire a reality.

      Love to you….

  12. says

    Hi Gail,

    I have found what you said to be true also. Life is so much easier when you don’t have lofty expectations for other situations, especially when they are out of your control.

    If you’re driving along on the way to work and suddenly the action stops due to an accident ahead, it’s no biggie if you accept that is out of your control, as long as you didn’t expect the drive to be hassle free. Be thankful you weren’t involved in the accident, enjoy the extra time you have to listen to the radio, take in a podcast or just enjoy the alone time.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Jess,

      And thank you to you for stopping by. This is a great example of the power of expectations – and the freedom we have when we don’t buy into them. It’s always possible to be peaceful, no matter what the life situation.

  13. sumitra thomas says

    Dear Gail,

    I love your blog! Thank You for your work and effort! I have a question on” expectations”: I am incoporating “the power of now” into my life and I agree that expectations are just thoughts that need to be questioned. However , If we are not to have expectations …how do I incorporate positive attitudes or positive thinking about a desire that I may have ? If I want something , I may want to act on achieving it might I not ie by putting forth efforts towards achieving the thing I want.And then , where does positivity fit here? Does not “being positive ” mean I have an image of having my hearts desire? If that reflects an”expectaion” then is being positive not allowed? Or is being positive just the absence of negativity?
    Your input please . Thank you again for all you do!!


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