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Reflections on Expectations
by Stewart Blackburn

One of the greatest challenges on the path to greater pleasure, joy, and happiness is mastering expectations. There is a great deal of confusion about what expectations really are, how to use them, and above all how not to be hurt by them. As the two quotes below demonstrate, very thoughtful people can have quite contrary views on this everyday experience.

High expectations are the key to everything.
- Sam Walton
Expectation is the root of all heartache.
- William Shakespeare

Expectations are very curious creatures. We create them all the time but once created they take on a life of their own. We expect that when we are driving the road will continue over the hill, we expect that the food in the supermarket won't make us sick, we expect our parents to tell us the truth. And most of the time we get what we expect. But every now and again something very different happens from what we expect and it shocks us. How could he/she/they/it do this to me? This isn't what I expected at all!!! It's as though there has been a breach of contract, an unspoken deal has been broken. We get upset as though we have been personally attacked.

Expectations are not future reality. They are not contracts with the Universe. They are not something outside of us that is a part of nature. They are simply beliefs we have accepted about the future. Very often our expectations are based on what we think are probable outcomes, on the projection of patterns we see, or simply on the basis of hope. Sometimes we base our expectations on what other people have said or what we thought they said. Or our expectations are based on meanings we have created to make sense of our immediate world. But, however they come to be, we are the ones who create them. Whether consciously or not we choose these beliefs and they are our creation. And like Frankenstein's monster they can lead to unpredictable, and perhaps, disastrous results when we are not fully conscious of our creations. For instance, perhaps I love my son so much that I want him to do well in school so that he can go on to a good college. As I envision his great success in life, I create an expectation that he will study hard and get good grades. However, if he should find that what he really wants to do is spend his time surfing and hanging with his friends, I may well be very disappointed. I might be so disappointed that I withhold love to a large degree to show my disappointment and in so doing poison my relationship with the son I love so.

With this in mind it's easy to see that we often make expectations simply based on how we think the world works. And most of the time the world works the way we think it should. This leads to a very powerful understanding that if we want to change our experience, then we need to change our expectations. That is to say that conscious expectations can be used to great effect, especially when we choose to expect good things, situations and experiences that help us to feel very, very good.

But when we make our expectations unconsciously and are not aware of having done so, then the expectations are like rogue thought-forms. They have a way of creating a "reality" that may be in alignment with how we think things work but may be a far cry from how we want them to be. For instance, suppose in spite of all efforts to eradicate these notions I believe deep down that women are inferior (I don't, but follow this with me if you will). I am very likely to make assumptions that the women I work with won't be able to keep up with me in thought and action. I will expect them to be less competent. This may not be a conscious expectation, in fact, it may be contrary to my current belief system. Just the same it is a function of the beliefs that I still carry and will produce harmful expectations as long as it remains in my system.

What happens when our expectations, conscious or not, are unfulfilled? This is the source of the disappointment that expectations are famous for. What we do with that disappointment determines how much pleasure we can have in the ensuing moments. If I created my expectation as a kind of unspoken pact with another person or the universe then I'm likely to feel cheated, angry and/or hurt. Things didn't work out the way I thought they would, so someone is to blame. What's important here is not to find out why things didn't go the way they "should" have and who is responsible for that. The real question is who decided that things should go a certain way and that any other way was unacceptable. And I think we all know the answer to that one.

Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.
- Dennis Wholey

Once I have recognized that I am responsible for my expectations and that they are only beliefs, not some form of reality, then I am then in the position to process those feelings (and perhaps feelings from the memory of similar situations). If I created my expectation based on my understanding of how the universe works, then my disappointment may well leave me confused. The most and useful common response is to search for a deeper understanding of the ways of the world so that my new experience can be integrated into my world-view. If my disappointment is in the actions, or non-actions, of other people then we have to recognize that there is another factor involved here as well. While expectation is very powerful, it is not as powerful as free will. We can't get people to do what we want with simple expectation. We might be able to manipulate them with shame, guilt, or bribes. But their free will always override any notions of expecting them to do something. The sanest way to deal with this is to give people permission to be who they are and to do what they do, just as we give ourselves permission to be who we are and to do what we do.

Another way to deal with unmet expectations is to reframe the experience. Suppose I expected to see a movie tonight but when I got to the theater I discovered that the movie had moved on. Besides feeling disappointed or angry, I could immediately look around for another pleasure. I could take this as a gift and look to see what else is playing or what other interesting, cool things might be around. Or I could just decide that being with myself would be the most pleasurable use of my time.

From an adventurer's standpoint letting go of most expectations is very helpful. Certainly, letting go of the expectations of how anything specifically will be experienced. If I am hiking in new territory, I'm there to experience what there is there. I may have some specifics that I desire, sights I want to see, particular experiences that are appealing, questions answered. But I am most likely to enjoy my adventure by limiting my expectations to those general ones in the nature of having fun and learning more about something. In this frame of mind disappointment easily melts away as learning always leaves room for surprises.

Expectations are a form of focus, just as intentions are. However, they are a kind of focus that disallows doubt and that is their great usefulness. Once we have become clear about what our desire is and we have chosen to have that desire met, then we put some effort towards meeting that desire and expect to have the desired result. This puts our whole being behind bringing our desire into reality and the expectation is the strongest expression of our will. It is much stronger than hope or optimism. It is a visceral kind of faith that involves the body as well as the heart and mind because it removes room for doubt. We often sabotage the creation of what we want by letting our doubts sap our energy. When we allow our focus to be dispersed by questions that start with, "What ifÉ" then some of our energy is dealing with the very opposite of what it is that we desire. Consciously expecting something to come to pass channels our energy and will like a laser beam.

But what happens when even our conscious expectation doesn't come to pass? The first thing to do is to look at what did happen. Very often what we find is that we have brought into being "the nearest equivalent" of what we had desired. Restaurants often give us an opportunity to discover new dishes when they are out of the one we initially wanted. By paying attention to the nature of our desire, the feelings that we were looking for, it usually happens that what we're seeking is right there.

If I have chosen an expectation intentionally as a way of influencing my experience and what I expected did not occur then I'm left with valuable information. I do not necessarily have an emotional response, simply that what I expected did not occur. It may well be that the nearest possible circumstance was created instead. Or it may be that a part of me felt that what I was expecting would not be in my best interest. All this leads to the point that we choose what assumptions and meanings we make about any results and that determines the experience we have at that point.

Nobody succeeds beyond his or her wildest expectations unless he or she begins with some wild expectations.
Ralph Charrell

There are four basic elements of successful (and sane) expecting.

The first is to remember that expectations are related to reality only as tools we can use to influence reality. Don't mistake them for reality itself.

Secondly, make expectations a conscious choice. If you encounter disappointment that gets under your skin, then you know it was an unconscious choice of expectation and you didn't take responsibility for it from the beginning.

Thirdly, you can expect anything you want. There are no limits to what you can imagine, what you can desire, and what you can expect to come to you. You are energizing your desire by your expectation in a very powerful way. There is no reason to hold back on influencing the world to fulfill your desires.

And finally, even with no doubt that your expectation will be fulfilled, it may not happen. Something will happen, though, and by looking at what did happen as the closest thing possible given the current circumstances, you can stay balanced, grateful, and happy.

Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Brian Tracy

What about the expectations of others? Most of us know how difficult it can be to encounter the disappointment of other people when we don't meet their expectations. As children most of us were taught that we were not supposed to disappoint other people, particularly our elders. Guilt and shame at the very least were the consequences of this disappointment. This, of course, has left many of us very aware of the expectations of others to the degree that we are afraid to disappoint anyone, even to the point of sacrificing our own happiness.

Expectations used in this way are a form of control, with the threat implicit or implied. They are intended to override our free will. As we grow into maturity we learn to assert our free will more and more but the habits of yielding to the expectations of others can be hard to break.

I do my thing and you do yours. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, then it is beautiful. If not, it can't be helped.
- The Gestalt Prayer - Fritz Perls

It is a major claiming of our freedom when we are willing to disappoint others if their expectations conflict with our own sense of wellbeing. Just as we need to take responsibility for our own expectations, we need to let others take responsibility for theirs. If we don't, if we take responsibility for them, then we are diminishing their ability to choose for themselves. That is to say, we are both inhibiting their free will and we are stifling their own inner guidance system, the one that lets them feel for themselves the value and virtue of any particular act or thought. In essence, we are disempowering them by taking responsibility for them. However, when we take responsibility for our own expectations but refuse to take responsibility for living up to another's, we are supporting everyone's self-empowerment.

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