On Expectations & Disappointment

We all have expectations.

I expect the sun to rise each morning and set each evening. I expect that I will, in fact, wake up and be alive each morning. These kinds of expectations are generally not acknowledged as being an expectation since, it’s assumed by the majority of people that they will occur. They’re assumed events.

Then there are expectations that lessen our ability to see the choices and control in our lives. Many of these expectations we obtain through the course of our lives — through our childhoods, from influences of peers and authority figures, through exposure to situations, from the media and from familial and societal norms.

They may never be labeled as expectations. In many families there is an expectation that children will graduate highschool or go on to attend college. It’s often never verbalized directly. There may not be a direct, “You will go to college” but instead through learned behaviors and patterns, it’s understood and assumed.

There are many expectations that are “placed” upon us. Educational and career expectations, monetary expectations, and the order in which one’s life path will progress (for example: college, dating, marriage, house, kids). Other’s can have a great deal of expectations for how they wish or want us to behave, act and choose.

For me, the expectations I place upon myself are often the greatest. Not just for how I want my life to progress but also in how I view certain situations.

Holidays are a great example. For most of my life I remember believing that Christmas was supposed to be the most magical day of the year. That I would come down the stairs at my house and the tree would be the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. I’d be filled with happiness and joy and excitement. As I opened the presents that Santa brought me, I would be overwhelmed with surprise and the most amazing feeling of content at receiving THE thing I desired most. It would be a perfect day.

I honestly don’t understand where this view of Christmas came from. A television show? A movie? Did someone once tell me a story like this?

Either way, it was an extremely unrealistic expectation. Nothing is perfect. There was no possible way I would get the thing I most desired (which was a little sister). Over the years I began stripping away at my expectation of how Christmas “should be”. Eventually all that was left of my original vision was the emotional feeling. I should feel amazingly happy and joyful and content.

You might see where I’m going with this story. My expectation that Christmas should equal happiness, joy and contentment was a set-up for disappointment. I felt like I should feel those things and, by not feeling them, I began to question what I was doing wrong. What was wrong with me. Everyone else (in my extremely skewed viewpoint) felt that way on Christmas.

Of course, everyone else did not feel that way on Christmas. They felt however they felt. And there was no way Christmas should be or how I should feel. Believing that the situation should go a certain way was an expectation that was doomed to fail because it was impossible. And in failing, I looked to myself as the culprit. That I must have been the wrong variable in the equation.

What actually was happening was that my expectation was unrealistic. It was a fantasy that was unobtainable by me, or anyone else. My mistake was believing that I was the incorrect part. The incorrect part was the expectation itself.

Unrealistic expectations don’t just come in the fantasy form, of expecting that events and circumstances should turn out perfect or pretty darn close. We also have expectations that events or circumstances will turn out poorly.

Often times we have these expectations based on past experiences. In a situation where we have had a poor experience, we may give ourselves a poor expectation or even no expectation to avoid continued pain.

For example, if a person in our lives constantly lets us down – doesn’t follow through with what they say and disappoints us – we may begin to lower our expectations for them. So the next time they say they will visit or call, we don’t expect that they will. This allows us to avoid the disappointment that will follow if they do not visit or call.

However, this lowering of expectations may eventually spill over into other parts of out life. We may fear disappointment or failure, so we lower our expectations of events or situations to avoid feeling disappointment.

In doing so, we may be inadvertently setting ourselves up for failure. So many times I’ve set myself up for disappointment by believing that my expectations were not only obtainable (as in fantasy) or realistic (as in lowered expectations) but also the way things were supposed to be. That’s not to say that one shouldn’t have expectations, but we need to evaluate the validity of them.

Stress and disappointment, not to mention failure, certainly come from a disconnect between our expectations and reality. Setting realistic expectations for ourselves, and those around us, can help reduce stress and disappointment.

If everyday I expected to wake up and have a perfect morning, with two children who perfectly listened, got dressed, ate their breakfast and got themselves ready, I would be setting myself up for disappointment and stress everyday. The reality is that my girls are 3 and 7 years old and the morning I just described is not realistic. By having a realistic expectation of how my mornings will go, I can better plan and handle them.

Every day is a learning process. By examining my expectations and developing more realistic ones, I not only sidestep a lot of disappointment and pain, but I am better able to appreciate the situations and events that I do have. I try to have realistic expectations, not expectations of perfection because my life isn’t perfect, but it is real.

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