On Personal Expectations: Why We’re Better Off Without Them

In an earlier post I talked about how different expectations between people in a variety of settings can be a direct cause of interpersonal conflict, and how we can best navigate our way through it. But what about our very own personal expectations leading to inner conflict within ourselves? And it’s a well known fact that inner conflict, engendered by what we’re wanting on the ‘inside’ not being actualised on the ‘outside’ in real world terms, can cause us considerable personal stress, and that if this is prolonged, can lead to anxiety and depression, through our inner aims and goals being thwarted.

My grandmother used to say ‘Be careful what you wish for, you might be disappointed’. There are many versions of this ideology, warning us that if we get what we think we want, it may not turn out as we expected.  Now I thought at the time, what an attitude! How negative! It sounded so defeatist, so down-trodden. But over the years I have come to understand what she meant. Expectations are insidious, aren’t they? My artist friend and I have chats about this, where we know all too well that our expectations are still triggered so easily, even though we’re on the alert for them – you never know, one day, we might become truly ‘successful’ , our art may become recognised, more appreciated, we might get inundated with commissions. Then we would be happy. I myself worked hard at trying to get a steady stream of nature illustration commissions, over and over, I tried this way and that, to become more widely known, I saw myself in my rural cottage sitting at my desk drawing and painting nature, earning a good living. I ticked a few boxes, like getting into an illustration magazine, like getting an agent, but although I’m grateful for what came my way, and the experience proved to me that this was the right thing for me to be doing, loving the personal responsibility, I still wasn’t able to get to where I wanted to be, to what I presumed or knew others to be doing, a much higher level of success. Then one day, it hit me with punishing clarity that just because I was ‘good enough’ and was trying my best, didn’t mean I was going to get to where I wanted to be. That just because people tell you that you do beautiful artwork, doesn’t mean you can generate an income from it, despite the assumptions from people that you must be able to get into this or that. Or they would say, ‘Why don’t you try….’(There’s nothing worse than people’s assumptions in this respect, because they are the same as those you started out with!). And that if you follow the motto ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’, then sometimes you actually just might be better letting go and finding something else to put your meaning into. I’d also been believing what I was told at school, that if you work hard, you’re sure to reap the rewards. And this yearning for success is what Lucy, my artist character in my novel, suffers from when we first meet her, so I was able to channel my feelings into her. Then followed a series of realisations which were painful, but which lead me to making changes for the better in my life. I still love painting, but I’ve adjusted my expectations.

So what does this mean? Expectations are, by definition, comprised of a strong belief that something in the future will happen, or that we fervently wish it to. We assume, we presuppose, we anticipate, predict, forecast and calculate, we trust, we eagerly hope, we pray, the word itself coming from the Latin, expectationem, meaning  ‘an awaiting’.

So how can we be happy in  the present if we’re waiting for our expectations to come to fruition in the future? For our dreams to come true? What happens if our goals (so popular to set these days) don’t give us the pay off we need, either because we don’t reach them and they are denied us, or because we do reach them, but find the place we’ve arrived at is not at all to our liking, because different responses and responsibilities are there to negotiate, together with far more pressure to ‘perform’. This can be a place of a new kind of inner conflict.

In his book, The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris talks about ‘excessive expectations’, where goals may be set too high, where we expect too much too soon, where we expect perfection and don’t allow ourselves to learn from our mistakes, and with all this going on inside us, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. He argues that ‘if you live a goal focused life, then no matter what you have, it’s never enough’. But if you are guided by your values, then these are always available to you, no matter what your circumstances. He says we should make sure our goals are in line with the values we’ve decided to live by, these values being our overriding priority – like a personal code. Then we can proceed with motivation, inspiration, and more defined meaning. So the idea is to prioritise our values (and to focus upon how we go about our lives day to day, staying in the now) over our distant goals, which we may or may not reach. And in the meantime our journey will be authentic, with far less personal inner conflict, and can actually bring us a kind of peace in the present. So if we focus upon creativity, our creative values may include: giving due attention to craft, being persistent, being genuine about what you do, being courageous, being supportive of others, and blending these with more general values personal to you. In a way you can come up with a personal creed to live by, by far superior than living according to your expectations, which if not met bring out the inner child we can all recognise in ourselves from time to time.

To broaden this out into a more philosophical approach, Buddhist doctrines urge us to let go of our attachments. And attachments operate just like expectations. When we live with these desires in our lives, and they don’t happen, or don’t give us the pay off we want, we get angry, upset, frustrated, depressed, where our attachments are ruling us, where they have the power. In How to Solve Our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, argues ‘since it is impossible to fulfil all our desires or to stop unwanted things happening to us, we need to find a different way of relating to frustrated desires and unwanted occurrences. We need to learn patient acceptance.’ This frees us from suffering and develops a more peaceful mind as we live according to our values, rather than being driven by our goals and expectations. So I’m all for that, but of course, because we live in a world dominated by wanting and expecting, and it’s rife on social media too, and because most of us live in a consumer-driven society hell bent on acquiring, we have to keep practising!

Finally, a Taoist view on expectations which I love, from Casey Kochmer’s A Personal Tao, quoting and paraphrasing here:

 ‘An expectation isn’t reality. It’s a hope of things to be…a package deal, bundled down with an emotional ribbon of attachment. It’s the attachment which forms the core problem of expectation. The advantage of attachment is that a person gains additional strength by personalising a process, however life constantly changes and we may encounter people with attachments to plans counter to our own.

He argues we should ignore our expectations, because it takes too much energy to attach, and then to un-attach, trying to fit to the whimsy of the world. Expectations are a methodology to force the world to fit to your mould compared to accepting and flowing with the world as it happens. They also actually limit a person to a small slice of what is available to live, they can lead people to live ever diminishing lives when basing personal worth upon their expectations, leaving them feeling unfulfilled and limited human beings.

So we need to dump our expectations and attachments, live according to our own personal values albeit with certain reasonable and not excessive goals in harmony and in mind, and bring acceptance and patience into our day to day lives. I’d like to add a point about self acceptance too, because I feel, and have experienced for myself, this belief from A Personal Tao, to be unequivocally true:

‘Accepting oneself without judgment is the starting point for personal liberty’

So wishing you well and good luck with all that!

(pics from pixabay)


About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
This entry was posted in Buddhism, On Life, Philosophy, Pyschology, Taoism, wellbeing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On Personal Expectations: Why We’re Better Off Without Them

  1. Rick Ellrod says:

    Reminds me of some scenes in C.S. Lewis’s *Perelandra*, where the narrator makes some incisive points about how fixing our hopes on our expectations can prevent us from enjoying what actually comes.


  2. This is a beautiful post, Lynne, and so full of wisdom. I love Harris’s advice, “we should make sure our goals are in line with the values we’ve decided to live by.” I can see and have experienced the expectations trap, but I think the expectations that give us trouble are often those based on skewed values – values that are societal, external, and over which we have little control. Our whole culture seems to require a redefinition of how we measure “worth” – not in monetary gains, fame, and power, but in the depth and breadth of heart.


    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanking you! Yes, it’s the cultural expectations that we can’t help but absorb that can do the harm – and they are, as you say, very much beyond our control. Why be held hostage by them? But it takes time and experience to recognise them and a certain courage to adopt a different mindset. Thank you for your comments – very valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A.P. says:

    I think this applies well to my own recent situation, where I experienced an upsurge of creative productivity for several months which prompted me to generalize that this trend would be ongoing. Then, when it ceased, I found myself unusually frustrated, having developed that expectation.


    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks Andy, it also applies to my own situation with just having published my novel. The first few weeks were surprisingly hard, waiting for people to read it, people have other things to be doing in summer, so I had to reign my expectations in! But all is well for now, and just a few lovely validations have been enough to settle me down. I think it’s the sporadic nature of trying to get our work into the world that makes expectations harder to handle at this time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • A.P. says:

        Sporadic – right. Unpredictable – and yet, we like to think we can predict it. I noticed when I also got that piece published in that periodical, there was something of a sense that this might be a trend, that many other pieces were about to be published, perhaps on a grander scale. It’s as though the idea that it might be an isolated incident is revolting to me. But then, one develops inordinate expectations, and these can lead to unnecessary despair. About your book, I would like to take a look at this. I recall your writing about having published it – I don’t recall where to find it, though.


      • lynnefisher says:

        Right, Andy, fully agree. When I got myself into artists and illustrators magazine, I expected there to be some reaction, like maybe I’d be contacted to do some commissions. Never happened.But we do have to easier on ourselves because we are soaking up a lot of stuff, patterns that can happen, that have happened to others, so in a way, it’s only natural to get into this expectant mindset. I try hard not to, and get on all the better for it. Here is the amazon.com link for the book – reviews in the Uk don’t show up here in the US, but I got one lady to transfer hers onto it. https://www.amazon.com/Turtle-Beach-Lynne-Fisher-ebook/dp/B073B3XGRX/ref=la_B073D3RLBJ_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1504449746&sr=1-1

        Liked by 1 person

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