“What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”
Benjamin Disraeli, British author and statesman
There was a time when it was very easy for me to be disappointed by other people. I can’t tell you how many times I would feel angry or let down when someone failed to do what I wanted them to do or what they agreed they would do. I would sometimes be filled with strong, uncomfortable feelings in these situations. In addition, as you might imagine, this propensity brought friction into my friendships and other relationships as I even complained to these unwitting perpetrators that they shouldn’t have done what they did. Am I alone in creating discord by not accepting people as they are?
The last time I felt disappointed by someone’s behavior, a friend had decided to attend a concert with me that I really wanted to see. A few days prior to the event, she cancelled. Sure, I could have taken it in stride, rallied, and found someone else to take her ticket, which I eventually did. But in the moment when she cancelled, I was taken over by feeling bereft – and very irritated. Her behavior had failed to match my expectation. What was different about this time is that, thankfully, the light bulb went off.
Expectations Are Not Reality
First, I recognized that I had been in exactly this place, feeling exactly what I was feeling, countless times before. I knew it was a trap to place my happiness in the hands of something I had no control over – someone else’s behavior. I was definitely motivated to look into my own process in an attempt to find a way out. In a freeing moment of insight, I saw how I had created the whole problem in my thinking. At the root of the problem was my expectation that my friend should do what she said she would do. I had unconsciously turned that thought into reality: because she said she would go, then that is what would – and should – happen. I realized how my expectation about her behavior had nothing to do with what she actually did. People do what they do; they don’t do what they don’t do. And they definitely don’t always do what they say they are going to do. I saw that applying an expectation to a person or situation is actually a recipe for suffering.
I undertook a study of the nature of expectations. The dictionary defines an expectation as “the act of regarding as likely to happen” and “anticipating the occurrence or the coming of.” An expectation is essentially an imagining about the future, a theoretical pseudo-reality that is created by thoughts in the mind. It is a thought that, when taken as real and true, leads us to assume that a given occurrence will happen. When seen for what it really is, it is merely a thought that has nothing to do with what may or may not happen. I may expect my friend to attend the concert, but this expectation is irrelevant to what she actually does. And believing that she “should” attend the concert when she decides not to only sets me up for an unpleasant emotional reaction.
When I applied this understanding to my persistent inclination to expect something to happen followed by disappointment, the whole pattern unraveled. I saw the way I had created this problem over and over. I had placed an expectation onto people’s behavior that I believed to be true, then became incensed when they did not comply. So many years of stress for me and disharmony in my relationships. I felt sad and contrite as well as liberated and joyful. I phoned my friend and thanked her for canceling our plans as I shared my insights with her. We laughed and felt our bond once again.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that our unmet expectations of others is the primary cause of interpersonal strife. Take a moment to reflect on how this operates in your own life. When you consider every problem you have with someone else, no matter how important or insignificant, you will probably notice that it is based on your belief about something that person should or shouldn’t say or do. You may try to convince yourself that you are right, that whatever you want to happen is the best or most appropriate outcome. But your beliefs about what is right do not control other people’s behavior.
The Essential Question
So here is the dilemma: We develop an expectation about someone else’s future behavior; then, if the expectation isn’t met, we experience an emotional reaction. The way out of this dilemma is to get in touch with one of life’s big questions, which is, “What do you really want?” Do you want to set yourself up to experience internal stress and bring struggle into your relationships – or do you want to feel a sense of internal – and interpersonal – ease and well-being?
For myself, I choose the latter. Since my light bulb moment, this problem has never plagued me again to any great degree. The fundamental attitude required is a desire to know the truth, no matter what, in conjunction with a willingness to pay attention to your own thought process. At the beginning, I would catch myself feeling disappointed, then trace back to discover the expectation that I had unconsciously formulated. It was always there – the root of the problem. I connected with what I truly want, which is to let the moment be as it is without interfering, to not try to control the uncontrollable. Do I really want people to do what I expect them to? Actually, no. What I really want is for each person to act according to his or her own truth – not to cater to my expectations. I want to accept people as they are. Then it becomes my responsibility to address whatever reaction I might have to their behavior. This reasoned investigation lead me to willingly, happily abandon my expectations. I have become open and humble. There is space and freedom for whatever happens, which brings some unexpected delights. Having expectations feels stuck and constrained, while being free of them feels, well, free.
How to Release Expectations
If you feel inspired to unhook from having expectations of others and to do your part to bring harmony into your relationships, here are some guidelines (see also guided meditation). The first step is to recognize the expectation and its effects on you. Signs that you are trapped by this mode of thinking about others include the following:
- Thoughts that someone should or shouldn’t do something, sometimes showing up as an intense whirl of mental activity. Clues are: he should…, she should have…, he needs to…, she better…, I hope he…, I want her to…, I don’t want him to…
- Accompanying emotions directed at those who have not met your expectation – anger, frustration, fear, disappointment, abandonment, feeling like a victim.
- Stress, possibly appearing as physical sensations of tightness or tension.
- Discord in your relationships.
Once you have discovered an expectation and how it is affecting you:
- Find within yourself an attitude of openness and curiosity. You already know that continuing to create your old pattern is no longer viable. You are on the precipice of an important shift, about to do something radical and different, which is to explore a habit that has troubled you for perhaps a very long time.
- Ask yourself these questions, one at a time, and wait for the response to arise. Allow the answer that comes to sink into your mind, your body, and the deepest part of your being.
– What do I really want?
– Do I have control over someone else’s behavior?
– Is this expectation true?
– Is this expectation serving me and this relationship?
– What if I let go of trying to control and allow things to unfold?
- Continue this process each time you find yourself caught by expecting a certain outcome.
Notice that I’m not advising you to drop the expectation. I am simply inviting you to become aware of your thoughts and feelings and ask some questions about them. This is all that is needed to take the charge out of your expectations. By truly questioning them, you are challenging the underlying assumptions that have been operating underground about them. Once your process becomes conscious and you see clearly how believing these thoughts induces suffering, your expectations actually let go of you. They no longer make sense, and you cease putting your thinking energy into them.
You may find some inner resistance as you investigate your expectations, as you are meeting a habit that may be quite ingrained. You may find yourself developing a strong rationale to defend your expectations. Be gentle with yourself, but don’t be defeated. I can promise you that when you get fed up enough with disharmony within yourself and in your relationships, when you are persistent in being humbly willing to investigate your own thinking, when you really want inner peace, you will see results.
But beware. You will undoubtedly experience the side effects of joy, intimacy, and a love of being alive.
I’d love to hear your reactions, questions, insights, and experiences, so feel free to comment.