The problem with expectations
Imagine this: you woke up today with your day fully planned. You are going to exercise before work, go to work, complete all of your tasks, go out to dinner at your favorite restaurant with a friend, and then go home, take a shower, and get to bed at a decent time.
You are excited about your day, especially with the knowledge that you have set goals for yourself and it feels good for most people to accomplish their goals. It's tidy. It is reinforcing. It helps to give our lives meaning.
Ok, so what's wrong with this scenario. Well, umpteen things could blow your plans. Here are just some possibilities:
1) You wake up sick as a dog
2) You are really tired from the day before and you don't have the motivation that you think you would have when you woke up today.
3) Your car is on the fritz unexpectedly.
4) Your boss dropped a ton of unexpected work on your desk with a very short deadline.
5) Your friend canceled dinner at the last minute.
6) You drive all the way to your favorite restaurant (let's say, a 30 minute drive in bad traffic with pouring rain, so heavy that you can barely see), only to find out that they're short-staffed and closed.
7) Your kid fell while playing on the playground and you're called to pick them up in the middle of the day to take them to Urgent Care.
8) Your dog jumped off the ottoman and broke his leg.
9) You couldn't finish all your tasks at work and it's due tomorrow, so you have to stay up until 2 am to get it done.
10) At some point of the day you became so stressed that you just didn't want to anything. So, you cancel your dinner plans and then spend the rest of the night mulling and beating yourself up about what a terrible friend you are.
Or, alternatively, everything that you had planned comes to fruition smoothly and beautifully! You feel a sense of pride, joy, and it's actually so uplifting that you probably don't even think about how miraculous it was that nothing went wrong. Ha ha, you laugh to yourself, you beat Murphy's Law! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
There's that old saying (if you are old enough to remember or enjoy reading old poems)..."the best laid plans by mouse and men often go awry," from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Personally, I've never really thought about the "plans" of mice (except to eat cheese or avoid traps).
As a psychologist, however, I have thought a lot about how our plans and the disappointments involved when our expectations aren't met (from childhood and beyond), is the source of so much of our feelings of unhappiness, anxiety, and anger. Essentially, we create our own misery because vicissitudes dominate life. Our lives do not move in a linear fashion and we keep hoping/assuming/praying that it will. In other words, our lives do not exist in vacuums. They are subject to so many outside variables and we strongly dislike interference unless it's an unexpected "up." No wonder there are so many people who walk through my door who call themselves "control freaks," with a mixture of self-effacement and self-disdain. They usually do realize the absurdity of trying to control things but they cannot stop the compulsion to do it.
Believe me, I am not immune to absurdity. There have been many times in my life, mostly during anxious times, when I was clinging to the hope and expectation that my plans would work out exactly the way I wanted them to, that everything would go exactly according to plan. Yeah, right! Well, it rained on my wedding day, one of my sons was born too early, my mom died too soon, etc. During those times I felt overcome by feelings of disappointment or frustration and even heart break that they didn't.
Let's take a look at when the opposite happens with regard to our expectations. Our plans were fully met, our expectations were met or even exceeded! We are so psyched!!
So how can that possibly be a problem, you might ask. In the moment it certainly doesn't feel like it! We break out the champagne, call everyone we know to tell them the good news, we post tons of pictures on FaceBook or whatever the social media of your choice happens to be, and we revel in the glory of our amazing success. And why shouldn't we? After all, you worked hard or trained hard, or overcame this or that, and plus deep down you never expected anything less! Success was obviously inevitable, right?
Well, HELLO EGO! Nice to make your acquaintance, please join our revelry. Let's do the Superior Dance together! IT FEELS SO DARN GOOD, doesn't it!!
The problem here is may be less obvious, but it is nevertheless a problem. The problem is that this feeling won't last. Tomorrow you may not be victorious. Tomorrow, you might get COVID or find out that that new Porsche you bought already needs to be brought back to the dealer for a light that keeps turning on and you don't know why. Tomorrow, you lose all the money on the bet that you placed last week when you were trying to get more, and more, and more cash (but why shouldn't you keep trying, says Ego - you are awesome and you won before, and you're unstoppable, etc., etc.).
I need to pause again and say, WHEW. My brain feels tired writing all this. All these plans, the expectations, the let downs, the successes, the not knowing "if this, then what" takes a toll. But this is how we are or how we are supposed to be, we think. We don't know how not to be like this.
I'll say for myself that after decades of trying to let go of expectations and Ego, I do not know if it's really possible for me to do it.
Somewhere along the line I remember hearing that an ardent follower of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has been exiled from his country for years, was asked if he was able to let go of all of his hopes for peace in the world, for an expectation that humans would some day, after centuries and centuries of killing each other, finally realize that the world could be better if we lived in peace. He didn't subscribe to the Darwinian belief of "survival of the fittest" and that violence is an inevitable part of survival for most (all?) species. At any rate, the Lama's followers expected him to say that he was able to completely let go of all of it, given this wisdom that that life was so transient and he practiced acceptance of himself, others, and all situations. But he did acknowledge the incredible difficulty of not allowing the Ego (and hopes, wishes, fears, and expectations) to hijack Mind.
(If I may continue this tangent for a moment, in Buddhism, there is a koan that says, "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." There are different interpretations of that koan, but I would encourage you to ponder it and research it if you like. It traverses the field of much of what I've been discussing in obscure and magnificently confounding ways. Plus, I love koans.) Take that, Ego!
So I'd love to know what were your expectations when you decided to read this entry?
Did I succeed?
Did I fail?
If I succeeded, will you return to my blog and read another entry? I expect that you will.
If I failed miserably and you thought this was just some long-winded philosophical fluff or spiritual hocus-pocus, or just plain old garbage, will you write a negative comment or never return to this blog again? I expect that you might.
Or, did I just bore the heck out of you and and you didn't even make it to reading this last paragraph because you switched to an episode of your favorite show on Netflix? I expect that you got some popcorn too.