“The best things in life are unexpected because there were no expectations”, said Eli Khamarov, and he was right. Happiness is usually proportional to our level of acceptance and inversely proportional to our expectations.
Expectations are present in our day to day, stalking us with its burden of illusions and pretensions. But when they are not fulfilled – something that happens often – we fall into the hole of frustration and disappointment. That is why it is essential to understand the mental limits that represent expectations.
What are expectations?
Expectations are personal beliefs about the events that may occur – or not. They are assumptions about the future, anticipations based on subjective and objective aspects. In fact, expectations are developed from a complex combination of our experiences, desires and knowledge of the environment or the people around us.
Expectations vary from a small possibility of occurrence to an almost certain occurrence. Some expectations have an automatic character since they are fundamentally fueled by our desires, illusions and beliefs, so we feed them without being fully aware of their origin and without contrasting how realistic they are. Other expectations have a more reflexive character since they start from a process of analysis of the different factors involved, being more realistic.
What are the functions of expectations?
The main function of expectations is to prepare for action. If we mentally anticipate what may happen, we can prepare an action plan so that life does not take us by surprise. Expectations, therefore, help us prepare mentally for the future.
In fact, most of our decisions are not based solely on objective data – as we like to believe – but on the expectations we have about the results of those decisions. That means that every decision is, in a way, an act of faith. Behind every decision lies the confidence that our expectations about the consequences of our choice will occur.
Therefore, expectations become a kind of inner compass. The problem is that waiting for something to happen will not make it happen, so when expectations are unrealistic they can end up playing tricks and, instead of helping us prepare mentally, they lead us to frustration.
5 examples of unrealistic expectations that feed a magical thinking
Jean Piaget pointed out that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective world they create in their mind and the external and objective world. Piaget discovered that children often believe that their thoughts can make things happen. For example, if they get angry at their brother, they may think he got sick because of them, even if it is not.
Piaget called this phenomenon “magical thinking” and suggested that we all overcome it around 7 years. However, the truth is that in adulthood we continue to have different forms of magical thinking. Many people find it difficult to abandon the idea that waiting for something to happen will make it possible, an idea on which are based theories like the famous “law of attraction.”
In addition, we tend to place our hopes of happiness on the expectations fulfilled. That is, we believe that we will be happy if what we expect or desire is fulfilled. And if it does not happen, we believe that we will be deeply unhappy. That kind of thinking postpones happiness, subordinating it to a probability.
However, expectations are not necessarily negative, as long as we have good reason to believe that meeting an expectation will make us happy, and make sure we take the necessary steps to ensure that those wishes are fulfilled.
The real problem with expectations lies in waiting for something to happen without good reasons. If we believe that simply harboring certain desires will make them happen, we are feeding a magical thinking and preparing the base for disappointment.
This type of thinking may seem delusional. And it is, but we have all fed it in certain circumstances every time we have unrealistic expectations such as:
1. Life should be fair. Life is not fair, to “good people” happen bad things. Hoping that we can get rid of problems and difficulties just because we are “good” is an example of an unrealistic expectation that we usually feed.
2. People have to understand me. We all suffer to some extent the False Consensus Effect, a mental phenomenon according to which we usually think that a large number of people think like us and that we are right. This is not always the case, everyone has their point of view and does not have to match ours.
3. Everything will be fine. It is a phrase that we often say to us to get confidence, but the truth is that if we do not make sure that things go well by putting our hands to work, our plans could be distorted at any time.
4. People should behave well with me. We hope people are kind and willing to help us, but it won’t always be that way. Some people will not like us and others simply do not care. We must assume it.
5. I can change him/her. We tend to think that we can change the others, a fairly common expectation in relationships. But the truth is that personal change must come from within, from intrinsic motivation. We can help a person to change, but we cannot change or “fix” him/her.
Consequences of unrealistic expectations
Expectations are not harmful in themselves since they help us to form a general picture of what could happen in the future. The problem begins when we expect life to be according to our desires, something that sooner rather than later will lead to disappointment, because as writer Margaret Mitchell said: “Life is not obliged to give us what we expect.”
The problem appears when we forget that our expectations often only reflect a desire or a probability – quite remote – that something happens. When we lose the sight of that perspective, expectations become a true killer of happiness.
In addition, when unfulfilled expectations involve the “failure” of other people to behave in the way we expect, disappointment is added to resentment, which will end up deeply affecting the relationship, causing us to lose confidence in those people.
Getting rid of expectations is complicated. The good news is that it is not necessary to banish them from our mental world, but we need to learn to distinguish between realistic and unrealistic expectations.
The advantages of mastering your expectations
1. Take responsibility for your decisions
Expectations are not facts, they are simple probabilities, understanding this difference, which is not merely terminological, will allow us to take charge of our lives. That means that if you want something to happen, you must assume a proactive attitude and take the necessary steps to make that desire come true, not wait patiently for others to guess what you want or expect from them.
Paradoxically, waiting less and acting more allows us to regain control without feeling overwhelmed as it implies greater confidence in our potential and greater self-knowledge. People who do not sit and wait for others to meet their expectations, but fight for what they want, do not usually adopt the role of victims or martyrs, but are responsible for making things happen.
2. Separate your desires from your duties
Most of the time we operate on autopilot assuming the “Herd Mentality”; that is, we are dedicated to fulfilling our duties. However, the duties are nothing more than the expectations that others have imposed on us, be it the family or society.
When we do not fulfill our duties, we feel guilty. But if we comply with them we expect a reward and when it does not come, we get angry and disappointed. In any case, we always lose because we are immersed in a permanent negative emotional state. However, getting rid of our expectations also means understanding that we don’t need to meet the expectations of the others. And it is a liberating process through which you come into contact with your true desires and passions, which are two fundamental ingredients to achieve what you set out in life.
3. Enjoy more the present
“Do not cross the bridge until you reach it”, advises an English saying. We need to understand that expectations are shaped by bits and pieces of the past, which have served us to make the prediction, and by wishes for the future but do not contain even a hint of the present, which is the only thing we really have. Expectations without action only serve to enclose us in the trap of the future, they limit us to the role of the chess player who is sitting waiting for the movement of his adversary, while all possible moves pass through his mind to counterattack. But in life, taking on the role of the chess player for too long means letting the present escape us.
In addition, expectations often turn into lens that prevent us from seeing the world clearly. When we wait for something, we can miss other opportunities, as if we were on the platform of a station waiting for a train that never arrives and, in the meantime, we let the others leave. On the contrary, having realistic expectations allows us to live in the present, build it and take advantage of the opportunities it offers us.
How to adjust expectations?
• Control the expectant mind. In Buddhism, reference is made to the “expectant mind” to refer to those people who expect something, but do not get down to work to achieve it. From this perspective, expectations are useless. In fact, they are counterproductive because when they are not fulfilled, they only serve to generate pain and suffering, irritation and sadness. The solution? Control that expectant mind. We can achieve this by opening ourselves more to uncertainty and life’s flow, living the situations without anticipating a result.
• Differentiate realistic expectations from unrealistic ones. Expectations help us prepare for the future, so we can use them in our favor, we just need to learn to differentiate realistic expectations, those that are very likely to become reality, from those unrealistic that are based almost exclusively on our desires. We must bear in mind that “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments”, as Steve Lynch said, since there is a high probability that they will not be met. Expecting a person to do something in our favor that goes against his interests is unrealistic. Instead, expecting that person to do something in our favor that also favors him is a more realistic expectation.
• Communicate your expectations. Believing that an unexpressed expectation will bring us what we want is a magical and unrealistic thought. In reality, it is very likely that an unexpressed expectation will not be met. Therefore, if we expect something from the others, we should not expect them to read our thoughts, it is best to communicate our expectations, explain what we want and know their willingness to help us.
• Prepare a plan B. Communicating our expectations is not always enough to make them come true. The achievement of our plans is influenced by many factors beyond our control, so the smart thing is to have a plan B. As Denis Waitley said: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.” That’s the attitude.