“The best things in life are unexpected because we had 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 life, stalking us with their load of illusions and pretensions. But when they are not fulfilled – something that happens often – we slip down into the hole of frustration, disappointment and disillusionment. That’s why it’s essential to understand the mental pitfalls that expectations represent.
What are expectations? Its meaning
Expectations are personal beliefs about events that may or may not happen. They are assumptions about the future, anticipations based on subjective and objective aspects. In fact, expectations develop from a complex combination of our experiences, desires, and knowledge of the environment or the people around us.
Expectations range from a small chance of occurrence to an almost certain occurrence. Some expectations have an automatic character since they are fundamentally fed by our desires, illusions and beliefs, which is why 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 are based on 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 us 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 mentally prepare 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 some way, an act of faith. Behind every decision lies the confidence that our expectations about the consequences of our choice will come to pass.
Therefore, expectations become a kind of inner compass. The problem is that expecting something to happen will not make it happen, so when expectations are unrealistic they can end up playing tricks on us and, instead of helping us prepare mentally, lead to frustration.
5 Examples of unrealistic expectations that fuel magical thinking
Jean Piaget noted that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective world they create in their minds and the external, objective world. Piaget discovered that children tend to believe that their thoughts can make things happen. For example, if they get angry with their brother, they may think that his brother got sick because of him, even though that is not true.
Piaget called this phenomenon “magical thinking” and suggested that we all outgrow it around the age of 7. However, the truth is that in adulthood we continue to have different forms of magical thinking. Many people find it difficult to give up the idea that waiting for something to happen will make it possible, an idea that theories such as the famous “law of attraction” lend themselves to.
Furthermore, we tend to pin our hopes for happiness on fulfilled expectations. In other words, we believe that we will be happy if what we expect or desire is fulfilled. And if it doesn’t happen, we think 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 the fulfillment of an expectation will make us happy, and we make sure that we take the necessary steps to make those wishes come true.
The real problem with expectations lies in expecting something to happen without having good reasons for it. If we believe that the simple fact of harboring certain desires will make them happen, we are feeding magical thinking and laying the groundwork for disappointment.
This type of expectation may seem delusional. And it is, but we have all fed it in certain circumstances whenever we harbor unrealistic expectations like:
1. Life should be fair. Life is not fair, bad things happen to “good people”. Expecting that we can get rid of problems and difficulties just because we are “good” is an example of an unrealistic expectation that we often nurture.
2. People have to understand me. We all suffer to some extent from the False Consensus Effect, a psychological phenomenon whereby we tend to think that a large number of people think like us and that we are right. It is not always like that, everyone has their point of view and it does not have to coincide with ours.
3. Everything will be fine. It is a phrase that we often say to ourselves to instill 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 go awry at any time.
4. People should be nice to me. We expect people to be kind and willing to help us, but that won’t always be the case. Some people won’t like us and others just don’t care about us. We must accept it.
5. I can change it. 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” them.
The consequences of unrealistic expectations
Expectations are not harmful in themselves since they help us form a general picture of what could happen in the more or less near future. The problem begins when we expect life to go according to our wishes, something that sooner rather than later will lead us to disappointment, because as the writer Margaret Mitchell said: “life is not obliged to give us what we expect”.
The problem appears when we forget that our expectations only reflect a wish or a probability – often quite remote – of something happening. When we lose sight of that perspective, expectations become a real happiness killer.
Also, when unfulfilled expectations involve the “failure” of other people to behave the way we expect, disappointment is compounded by resentment, which will end up deeply affecting the relationship, causing us to lose trust in those people.
Getting rid of expectations is complicated. The good news is that we don’t need to banish them from our psychological world, but we do 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 control of our lives. That means that if you want something to happen, you must be proactive and take whatever steps are necessary to make that wish come true, not patiently waiting for others to guess what you want or expect from them.
Paradoxically, expecting less and acting more allows us to regain control without feeling overwhelmed, since it implies greater confidence in our potentialities and greater self-knowledge. People who don’t sit around waiting for others to meet their expectations, but instead fight for what they want, don’t usually take on the role of victim or martyr, but take it upon themselves to make things happen.
2. Separate your wishes from your duties
Most of the time we operate on autopilot assuming the “herd mentality”; that is, we dedicate ourselves to fulfilling our duties. However, duties are nothing more than the expectations that others have imposed on us, be them the family or the 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, letting go of our expectations also means understanding that we don’t need to meet the expectations of 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 to do 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 made up of bits and pieces from the past, which have served us to make predictions, and wishes for the future, but they 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 his opponent’s move, while all the possible moves to counterattack go through his mind. Only that in life, assuming the role of the chess player for too long means letting the present slip away.
In addition, expectations often become glasses that prevent us from seeing the world clearly. By waiting for something, we can miss other opportunities, as if we were on a station platform waiting for a train that never came and, meanwhile, we let the others go. On the contrary, having realistic expectations allows us to live in the present, buildtake 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 put their hands to work to achieve it. From this point of view, expectations would be as useless as an Indian dance to call the rain. 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 to the course of life, experiencing situations without anticipating a result.
• Let go of the need for control. Many expectations stem from our need for control and the idea that there is a linear relationship between cause and effect. We hope that if we do something for someone, for example, sooner or later they will return the favor. But life doesn’t work that way, or at least not always. Therefore, to adjust expectations you must let go of the need to control everything and become more open to change, the unknown or even the improbable. You need to stop taking certain outcomes or behaviors of others for granted, especially when they are not entirely up to you.
• Differentiates between realistic and unrealistic expectations. Expectations help us prepare for the future, so we can use them to our advantage, we just need to learn to differentiate realistic expectations, those that have a high probability of becoming reality, from unrealistic ones that are based almost exclusively on our wishes. We must keep in mind that “unrealistic expectations are deliberate resentments”, as Steve Lynch said, since there is a good chance that they will not be met. Expecting a person to do something for us that goes against his interests is unrealistic. On the other hand, expecting that person to do something for us that also favors him is a more realistic expectation.
• Use expectations to open your mind. We tend to use expectations as a tunnel that leads only to one destination, with little chance of detour along the way. Instead, since expectations are just assumptions about the future, you can use them as a tool to stretch your mind. Use them to broaden your thinking by weighing all possible options, even the least likely ones. This will give you the opportunity to discover new paths and embrace uncertainty, also freeing yourself from the pain caused by things not going according to plan.
• Communicate your expectations. Believing that an unspoken expectation will bring us what we want is magical and unrealistic thinking. In reality, it is very likely that an unexpressed expectation will not be fulfilled. Therefore, if we expect something from the others, we should not expect them to read our thoughts, the best thing is 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. Between our plans and their achievement are many factors beyond our control, so the smartest thing is to have a plan B prepared. As the writer Denis Waitley said: “Hope for the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised”. That’s the attitude.
How to deal with other people’s expectations?
Managing your own expectations is complex, but it can be even more difficult to deal with the expectations of others since, in a certain way, we are programmed to comply with social norms and do what is expected of us. In this way we obtain the approval and acceptance of the different groups to which we belong. However, there are times when the expectations of others become chains that limit us and we have to get rid of them.
In that case, it is important to be clear. If you have detected that others have expectations that you cannot or do not want to meet, the best coping strategy is usually to put them on the table. Talk about those expectations and make it clear what you are willing to do and the red lines you will not cross.
Many times people harbor expectations unconsciously or because they are guided by patterns and social roles that you may not be willing to follow. If you want to maintain a healthy and respectful relationship in which neither of you feels forced to make decisions by the pressure of other people’s expectations, it is essential that you approach these issues honestly.
It is also important that you prepare yourself for conflicts, reproaches or recriminations because you cannot expect the other person to always understand your point of view. A broken expectation hurts, so people will try to hold on to that hope. Assumes that everyone has his own expectations and it is not always possible to match or satisfy them. Once you have made your position clear, the other person is entirely responsible for his expectations.
In any case, keep in mind that you do not need to justify your life decisions. You will not always be able to adjust the expectations of the others. Your parents may still hope you have kids or your friend may still hope you don’t move halfway across the world, but you don’t have to make those decisions to please them. The key lies in finding a balance between what you want and what makes you happy and what does not harm the people around you. After all, whoever really loves you will understand you.
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