How to manage your expectations
Your expectations create your reality. Bring to mind one of the many times when you felt ungrateful, bitter, frustrated or angry towards an objectively positive or ambivalent situation. The cause? The gap between your expectations and reality.
Lowering your expectations means being consistently grateful and present for how much better things turned out than you anticipated, or at least accepting and resourceful (rather than petulant and entitled) when they do not.
Here is a simple written exercise to practice regularly with the goal of increasing awareness of your ‘unspoken’ expectations and lowering or removing them. The exercise is outlined and examples are given first, followed by a deeper explanation of each aspect and its benefit to your level of contentment.
To begin, answer these four questions:
1. Uncover and list any expectation you have of yourself
E.g. "People will really love my book: they will respond to its authenticity, humor and spirit. It’s going to be a success."
2. Answer ‘Who’s expectation is this? / Who does it serve?’
E.g. "When I think about it, I’ve always suspected my parent’s idea of success was a creative outlet of some kind. Their expectations have bared down on me ever since I left home. Ever since Dad retired he has been talking about how proud he is of taking up the piano. Perhaps this expectation is inherited from him?"
3. Turn the expectation into a process goal, standard or habit.
E.g. "I will make a regular practice (once a month) of sending what I have written to trusted editors: asking specifically how authentic and humorous they find my work."
4. Negative visualisation: Invert the expectation to the negative. Visualise it.
E.g. "Today I will feel too exhausted to write more than a sentence. If I manage more, it will all get torn up and thrown in the bin. I will be distracted, my partner will come home early, the dog will sh*t on the floor whilst I'm having my best idea of the day…"
Frequency: I do this every morning, with varying degrees of detail. No less than once a week.
Time required: Two to 10 minutes. Sometimes many expectations present themselves for the day ahead, sometimes none. If a really weighty, long term expectation (ambition) rears its head, I will focus on that in detail, and leave the daily ones.
1. Gain self-awareness
In the first part of the exercise, you are looking to gain awareness of the expectations you place on yourself: whether that’s over the next hour or the next 10 years, whatever your intuition/subconscious throws up is good.
Some are obvious, some are not. ‘Hidden’ or ‘unspoken’ expectations are insidious creators of expectation ‘gaps’ – the difference between your expectations and your reality. These gaps, if negative, cause frustration, disappointment, anger, depression, anxiety. They cause us to be far harder on ourselves than is useful.
Look out for internal language involving ‘need’ and ‘should’ – there is commonly an expectation placed on yourself/others somewhere nearby.
- "People will really love my book: they will respond to its authenticity, humour and spirit. It’s going to be a success."
- "I should finish this chapter today easily."
2. Clarify expectations
Having gained awareness of these expectations, the second step is to ask who’s expectation it is or who it serves? Often, the knee-jerk response is, well… ‘me, of course!’ But, I encourage you to keep searching.
In most cases, this expectation is influenced by or inherited from someone else. The expectations you perceive others to have of you are likely driving far more of your behaviour than you care to admit. Be as objective as possible here and, remember, we are all as flawed as each other. No one escapes this.
- "This is my own expectation: I wanted to write a book. It fulfils me when it’s going well."
- "When I think about it, I’ve always suspected my parent’s idea of success was a creative outlet of some kind. Their expectations have bared down on me ever since I left home. Ever since Dad retired he has been talking about how proud he is of taking up the piano. Perhaps this expectation is inherited from him?"
- "I follow a lot of writers and writing coaches on Instagram. They all seem to be able to easily write 2000 words a day, even in a few hours. I think I’ve placed this expectation on myself as a result."
- "Now I think about it… the idea of success I have may not even be purely my own. I’ve got enough respect from my peers and feel the love from my family… who am I trying to impress?!"
3. Look for the goal within the expectation
If you decide the expectation from part one is true enough to yourself and your values to be worth desiring and hoping for, then… Let it go! This may seem counterproductive. However, it is possible to work toward an expectation without actually placing much value on the outcome itself.
To do this, bring your attention to two different types of ‘goals’:
- Outcome goal - "I want to finish my book by January 31st." At that date, you want to see the book complete. It’s fine having outcome goals, but people tend to attach expectations to their outcome goals.
- Process goal - "Writing daily for at least an hour." These are more like habits which you develop over time. Process goals are less stressful because they aren’t based on your progress or your abilities. It’s based on your commitment. You set aside time for writing and you write. It doesn’t matter how fast you write or how much you write. As long as you schedule a time for writing and you follow through, you reach your goals.
What it’s really about here, is where you choose to place your focus. When you think about it, most of life isn’t under your direct control. Only two things are - your thoughts and your actions.
Everything else is, to varying degrees, under your influence, but not your control. Even your thoughts and actions aren’t always under your control. Placing too much of your focus on outcomes, expectations and hopes is stressful, and regularly creates a negative expectation gap.
So, become aware of your outcome goals. Start to get into the habit of asking yourself what the process goal is, instead. What is the minimum standard you set for yourself in regard to this expectation or outcome goal?
- "Every weekday, I will sit down to write for at least 30 minutes at 6am before I shower."
- "I will make a regular practice (once a month) of sending what I have written to trusted editors: asking specifically how authentic & humorous they find my work."
4. Negative visualisation
Create and list low expectation(s) in contrast to the one identified in part one. Then visualise it.
For example: "Today I will feel too exhausted to write more than a sentence. If I manage more, it will all get torn up and thrown in the bin. I will be distracted, my partner will come home early, the dog will sh*t on the floor whilst I'm having my best idea of the day."
Then, visualise this happening. Focus on the point where you would have been at your worst: the point where you give up, get so frustrated you scream, where the dog does its business on the floor, where you shout at your partner for distracting you when they offer you a cup of tea, when you freeze up from the worry of missing your deadline.
Really feel this expectation becoming a reality. How do you react?
This is where the habit of low expectations is fostered. It takes force at first and may seem defeatist. However, the ability this premeditation has to take the ‘sting’ out of a negative event is eye-opening. You are now free to have as much of a bad day as you possibly can. Enjoy. Moreover, if you really get with this habit, your reality regularly surpasses your expectations.
By doing the above, you are training the habits of low expectations and high standards. The end goal is to have your ‘expectation gap’ be positive the majority of the time, whilst maintaining standards of habits/processes that make you proud.
It’s interesting to note the difference in reaction between someone with high vs low expectations, to the exact same external event:
- Anxiety/worry becomes presence.
- Frustration becomes gratitude.
- Confusion becomes awareness.
- Disappointment becomes acceptance.
- Resentment becomes laughter (at oneself or the situation).
Natural priorities emerge alongside this awareness. Letting go of the expectations of others leads to the compassionate treatment of ourselves, more time for what we want, and energy to be generous when we consciously choose, rather than as a result of our subconscious programming.
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