Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed. – Alexander Pope
The human mind is a miraculous thing; it can think critically, it can imagine, it can plan. It can look toward the future and try to predict likely outcomes.
Only, its predictions are often wrong.
And when this happens, the human mind has a tendency to curse its luck as if it has been treated unfairly in some way.
When we think we know how some event will pan out or how a particular person will act, and something other than this expectation occurs, it shatters the future we had envisaged.
Often, when the reality does not match our expectation, our minds respond in a negative way. Our peace is broken and our happiness levels drop.
Why does this happen and what can we do instead to prevent this mental unrest? Let’s investigate…
One of the two core feelings that arise after our expectations are not matched by reality is that of disappointment.
This new outcome may not be any worse than the one we had in our minds, but because it is different, we feel somewhat deflated.
We feel as though we haven’t received what we had hoped for, and so somehow it must be worse, even when it has similar consequences for our well-being.
We can feel sad; sad that we have been denied our wishes; sad that we won’t get to experience our expected outcome; sad that perhaps that chance has been lost forever.
And if the actual outcome is materially worse for us, these feelings of sadness and disappointment can be even more intense.
Disappointment is especially likely when we have unrealistic expectations of a positive outcome; when we are optimistic in spite of the more realistic and probable conclusion to events.
We pin our hopes on the outside chance of something good happening, and we feel utterly defeated when it doesn’t.
The other primary emotional and mental response to things not going the way we had expected is resentment.
This is when we feel most unfairly treated. This is when we feel cheated, lied to, insulted even.
The sheer indignation of having high expectations that are not met can result in anger and frustration.
This response might be more likely than disappointment in instances where you feel you had every right to have high expectations of some event or person.
Poor customer service, inadequate treatment by people in positions of responsibility, an experience that goes against the general consensus of others: these are all examples of times when you may resent the outcome.
Resentment is also more common than disappointment when the situation is more black and white; where there is a definitive good outcome (as expected) and one or more that are clearly bad. An equivalently good, but unexpected, outcome does not really exist.
When Our Expectations Are Negative
The feelings of disappointment and resentment are generally associated with an optimistic outlook which is subsequently denied.
But there is another way in which our expectations prevent our happiness: when they are overly negative.
This goes beyond pessimism to a point where we not only prepare for the possibility of something bad happening, we actively expect it to happen.
The result is something that many people deal with: anticipatory anxiety.
When we convince ourselves of the likelihood of ill befalling us, we work ourselves into a state of hyper-alertness and even panic. Our bodies respond to the brain’s signals and this perpetuates our mental angst.
We exist in a state of readiness; the fight, flight, or freeze response. Only we’re preparing for an eventuality, not a certainty.
Very often, we are the cause of our own feelings of fear and stress and panic. Our expectations strip us of our inner peace, of our ability to enjoy the moment.
We convince ourselves of the importance of certain things, even when they have little influence over events or any other people who may be involved.
When the outcome finally comes, and when it is more positive than we thought (which it often tends to be), the anxiety we felt beforehand has taken a toll on our minds and bodies. We can no longer fully appreciate the happy ending; all we feel is relief tinged exhaustion.
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The Two Types Of Expectations
While all expectations involve a future element, they can be classified in two ways: expectations of events and expectations of people (though there can be some overlap).
With the former, we see a particular outcome in our mind’s eye and allow that possibility to grow and mature the more we imagine it.
If this expectation has no set end date, we can continue to attach significance to it until we are finally forced to confront its ultimate impossibility, at which time the feelings of disappointment or resentment will be intense.
Or, if the event itself is of great importance to us, we can have equally strong feelings.
Generally speaking, the longer one holds an expectation in their mind, and the more important an event is, the farther one’s emotions have to fall should it not turn out as hoped for.
When it comes to people, we tend to form expectations about how they act or how they feel. Often, we project how we feel or how we would act in any given situation onto them, believing they will feel or act the same way.
And the disappointment or resentment comes when we discover that they do not feel as we do or they act in a way that differs from what we would have done.
Alternatively, we might have particular beliefs based entirely on what other people have told us, only to find that these are not born out in our own experience of this individual.
And it does not have to be specific people that we attach expectations to either. It might be organizations such as brands, government departments, religions, or even sports teams.
It might be specific people within these organizations that act in a way that differs from our expectations, but we tend to apply our disappointment and resentment to the organization responsible for that individual as much as the individual themselves.
Learning To Let Go Of Expectations
In order to respond better to any and all outcomes, regardless of whether you expected them, you can begin to work on your own mind, your thought patterns, and your emotional responses.
There are certain traits that one can nurture and grow in order to both lessen the need to predict the outcome, and improve your ability to respond to it, whatever it may be.
Some of these traits include:
1. Open-mindedness: if you can remain open to the many possibilities of life instead of fixating on a single future, you will minimize any feelings of disappointment and resentment.
2. Resilience: one of the best ways to avoid tying yourself to a particular expectation is to build an unshakeable, resilient self. If you know that you can handle any situation, you will feel less need to cherry pick a particularly positive outcome in your mind.
3. Realism: by basing your thoughts on a solid foundation of realism, you won’t attach your emotional well-being to an improbable future. You’ll be aware of, and prepared for, the myriad more likely outcomes.
4. Self-esteem: a vital ingredient to a more resilient mind is self-esteem. If you can grow belief and trust in yourself along with a healthy self-love, you’ll be equipped to handle whatever life throws at you.
5. Gratitude: an effective way to avoid the feelings discussed above is to try to find positives in any outcome. If you can look on the bright side from a mindset of abundance, you’ll find you have no need to feel down or angry.
6. Acceptance: rather than believe you can control every detail of your life, you can practice accepting whatever comes your way. It’s this or try to deny the outcome and fight against it, which is a wholly futile endeavor.
7. Playfulness: sometimes you’ve just got to take life less seriously and recognize that a smile and a sense of adventure go a long way to making the best of any situation.
It is often said that we should “expect the unexpected,” but this is not the greatest advice ever given.
On the one hand, yes, we ought to be prepared to face any eventuality knowing that the future cannot be predicted with any great accuracy.
On the other, we are being counseled to have an expectation nonetheless. To expect the unexpected, one has to remain vigilant and ready to act. But vigilance is not conducive to peace.
Perhaps we should embrace the message in the quote that opened this article and avoid forming expectations altogether. This closing quote is also very pertinent:
Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than how you think it should be. – Wayne Dyer