The subtle misery of high expectations

There’s a centuries-old train of thought that equates expectations with results. In Blessed, author Kate Bowler quotes Essek William Kenyon, writing, “Christian talk about hope had to be amended, for, as Kenyon claimed, “Hope says, ‘I will get it sometime.’ Faith says, ‘I have it now.’”” 

Bowler described the core of this metaphysical train of thought, “Adherents, acting in accordance with divine principles, relied on their minds to transform thought and speech into heaven-sent blessings.”

This belief has spread its DNA into varying fields. One modern equivalent of that is the law of attraction, a spiritual belief that positive thoughts bring positive experiences and outcomes into a person’s life, and negative thoughts manifest negative experiences.

The self-help and personal development sections in bookstores are thriving. In psychology, there’s the field of positive psychology. In entertainment, there’s lucky girl syndrome, and the entrepreneurial stories of faking it till you make it, with shows like Inventing Anna, The Dropout, and WeCrashed.

While the spirituality of it has been stripped away, the mindset is still there; expect to have something good, and you’re going to get it. Expect the worst, and you’ll get that too, because, “You put it out there.”

There are a lot of great reasons for us to loosen our grip on this belief that expectations will change our physical realities. Firstly, without this thought, I actually believe that we open our minds to the present and the opportunities right in front of us. We work with reality instead of the expectations we’d set (or other people have set) in our minds.

I also believe that high expectations ultimately can be a breeding ground for unhappiness. There are a couple of quotes from Morgan Housel that best illustrate how it works:

“Expecting nothing but good feels like such a good mindset – you’re optimistic, happy, and winning. But whether you know it or not you’re very likely piling up a hidden debt that must eventually be repaid.”

“Life isn’t any fun without a sense of enough. Happiness, as it’s said, is just results minus expectations.”

I’m definitely not suggesting you should set low standards in every part of your life—for yourself, or for the people around you. You need to hold yourself up to a certain point. 

However, it’s important to focus on the process and the practice, and not the outcome—not the expectation. 

The other tangible outcome is more difficult to let go of. The story that we can change our results with our expectations or beliefs means that we can still retain a sense of control. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I just didn’t want it badly enough; it was my fault. 

There’s a degree of masochistic consolation in that; if only I expected higher, and practiced harder as a result, then I wouldn’t have failed.

Sometimes that’s certainly true, and sometimes it’s not. 

What we want out of life is not always completely within our control. Reality is complicated, complex, and crazy; all we can do is continue to move forward amidst our highest victories, and lowest setbacks and disappointments. 

It takes a great sense of patience and humility to accept and make peace with what we don’t control.

P.S., Creative blocks are a great example of what happens when expectations rise too high. In that case, the artist’s expectations have risen so high that they’re not even sure they can accomplish what they set out to—and so they want to give up, except they’ve sunk so much energy into dreaming up the project that they can’t. Their fixation with their work has led to an unhealthy obsession, and they struggle to wriggle their way out of it.

P.P.S., There’s also a counterpoint to this that I’d want to explore: in our future-oriented  mindsets, low or modest expectations can feel like dejecting experiences. It can feel like somebody doesn’t believe in your future (or you don’t believe in your own). Because their confidence and conviction in your work is not high, it can also mean that people aren’t willing to provide the support or resources you need to actually make that expectation into a reality. Another exploration for another day.

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