When I walked out of my prestigious management job many years ago, I felt like a failure.
All I had worked for, gone.
Sure I had walked out of the job myself—sick of the pressure, the long hours and the never-ending bartering—but I still felt like a failure. Why? Because I had set towering expectations—about the job, the co-workers, the satisfaction it would give me, but mostly about myself.
I was good at it, setting high expectations. And at raising the expectations when the results came near. And I was even better at blaming myself when those expectations weren’t met. Always in a reactive, fighting mode. Recognize this? Exhausting!
Fortunately I don’t torture myself like this anymore. Because admit it, setting high expectations is agony and even worse, self-inflicted. It took me a long time to recognize, and an even longer time to be able to, but now I’ve experienced firsthand—we can change this situation by changing our mind. Yes, we can free ourselves from our stifling expectations by trading them for explorations.
It’s takes effort, I admit, but it makes a big difference.
How do we do this? I see three steps here: understand the nature of expectations, become aware of the expectations in your life and shift your view from expectations to explorations.
Step 1: Understanding the nature of expectations helps us to accept why we have expectations, why they even sneak in subconsciously.
In my experience, our expectations give us a handle on life, on the world around us and on ourselves. Having expectations give us a reassuring—but false!—sense of control. This can be control over change that is happening outside us—for instance the dreaded economic malaise, but especially control over a change we would like to initiate ourselves, like wanting to be a 5:00 am riser or losing a few pounds.
We set our expectations and it all becomes tangible, it all becomes within reach…in our mind. We even have figured out the way to go, the path to success and it feels secure, it feels safe, until we divert—wittingly or not—and end up somewhere totally different. Somewhere that doesn’t measure up to our expectation of being a 5:00 am riser or losing the pounds at all. Or in my case to my desired management position. Then we feel disappointed, bitter, anger, and start the blame-game. Most unhealthy. Most unhappily.
How to let go of this self-created safety net?
Step 2: Becoming aware of the expectations in our life.
When we observe ourselves, look closely at our behavior and investigate our mind, we can see our expectations, becoming really conscious of them. And the moment we become aware of our expectations, at the same time we can see what is true in this very moment.
For example when we become aware of our expectation of getting up at 5:00 am, the awareness of this expectation is immediately followed by our observation that we are actually getting up at 7:00 am—the true situation. When we step on the scale and notice our expectation of losing three pounds, this awareness is immediately followed by the fact that the scale is not on the expected digit—the true situation.
Acknowledging the expectations in our lives is the essential step to letting go, of giving up our sense of control—what we don’t acknowledge, we can’t change. And then…
Step 3: Now that we’re aware of our expectations, we’re going to shift our view.
Our expectations are result-based, set in a future that might never be. Focusing on these expectations gives us a limited view. See it as a road trip. If we fix our eyes on the far horizon all the time, we’ll miss the beauty of the scenery we’re passing through. We’ll miss the accidental encounters with interesting people, the little rest-stops with locals enriching our view, we might even miss the alternative trails that would have made our journey even more fun. Not to mention the huge pressure of not enjoying the now when we measure everything—even the gorgeous sunset on the way—to our expected future destination. Seems quite foolish now that I write about it, but I did this so many times.
So let’s shift from expectations to explorations. From rigid set points in a future to an open possibility in the now. With the shift of view to explorations, we bring ourselves back from the future that might not even happen. We bring ourselves into the actual now in which we acknowledge what we want to change, and we acknowledge that it takes time and effort.
We start from where we are, get curious and open ourselves to the passing possibilities. So in the case of early rising at 5:00 am, we acknowledge our starting point of 7:00 am and explore the many possibilities of getting to 5:00 am. Actively investigating, probing, trying and enjoying on our journey to rising early. A first rest-stop is at 6:40 am while relishing the small victory. And then on again. With this attitude we take the pressure off, releasing ourselves from a rigid future.
With an open mind, we take in the inspirations that come our way, thereby getting more creative along the path. An open mind is also more clear, therefore we are making better decisions while working on our change. Creativity, better decision making, tension release, it all contributes to the change we are making while opening up, while doing our best.
“Life happens when you’re busy making plans” as John Lennon said, and indeed, life happens around us. Responding with expectations will only lead to disappointment since the measurement we set is mostly on the other side. Responding with explorations, opening up to possibilities, we’ll experience that new ways unfold.
So I can hear you say, does that mean we make no plans anymore? Set no new goals? No, it doesn’t mean we stop making plans. But it does mean not getting attached to the expected outcome and most of all, not letting ourselves be defined by the expected outcome.
Trading our expectations for explorations: easier said than done but definitely worth the practice. No, we can’t really stop ourselves from coming up with expectations, but we can be aware of it, open up and be kind to ourselves. Whenever we feel entangled, stuck, or we beat ourselves up…we can stop, observe and respond with an open mind and an open heart.
And then we start again, doing our best, living our desired change while exploring the wonderful possibilities unfolding in the now.
Author: Elles Lohuis, Ph.D.
Editor: Catherine Monkman