We are all walking bundles of expectations. We have expectations of ourselves and others, and we feel bound and pressured by what others expect of us. All of this collective weight of expectations really just does one thing—it makes us irritable, angry, and disappointed because, let's be honest; eventually, we'll fall short, at least on some of them.
Tying our happiness to desired outcomes is the stupidest thing we can do. And yet, we do it. All the time. All of us. But there is an alternative.
Here is a popular Buddhist parable about identity.
An ancient Indian guru had a new disciple keen to learn about the mysteries of life. The Guru took his disciple under his tutelage, ending every lesson with the words "never become someone."
One day the Guru received an invitation from the King to the palace. So, he went with his disciple. When the duo reached the castle, they realized the King was out hunting for a few hours. So, the pair waited in the palace gardens, shortly after which the Guru noticed a few empty cottages around the garden.
Tired from their earlier journey, the Guru walked into a cottage, stretched out, and fell asleep. Following his Guru's footsteps, the disciple walked into and fell asleep in the neighboring cottage.
Who are you?
Eventually, the King returned and was enraged to see his cottages occupied by strangers. He summoned the disciple first and asked him who he was. Fearful of the King's wrath, the disciple answered, "I'm a monk." The King, not trusting the disciple's words (why would a monk encroach the palace gardens?), ordered his soldiers to beat the disciple up.
Then, the King went over to the Guru's cottage and asked him the same question — "Who are you?" To this, the Guru replied, "Hmmm." Annoyed, the King asked the Guru again and got the same response. After repeatedly asking the Guru who he was and not getting a satisfactory answer, the King assumed the man wasn't mentally sane. Frustrated and annoyed, he ordered his soldiers to remove the Guru from the cottage and let him go instead of punishing him for trespassing.
Later, the disciple united with the Guru and asked him why they experienced vastly different treatments. The Guru reminded his disciple that by telling the King he was a monk, the disciple had "become someone." In contrast, by staying silent on the question, the Guru hadn't assumed any identities, which served him well.
Our many identities
We wear many different identities every day based on gender, race, and age but also on the roles we play – spouse, parent, teacher, friend, community organizer, etc. We understand and embrace these identities (mostly). What we aren't fully aware of, though, is the myriad expectations associated with each of these identities. It's only a matter of time before we fall short of our expectations or cannot perform to the standards others expect from us, setting us in a cycle of annoyance, irritability, and disillusionment.
Disappointment—a case study
Here's my own example (using a first-world problem that I'm sure resonates with some of you) of how the weight of expectations can cause us to suffer.
I live in a 2-story house and always find that the thing I need is never on the same floor that I'm in. To make matters easier (and Marie Kondo proud), I experimented by leaving baskets at the top and bottom of the stairs to collect and transport stuff to their rightful places. And since I'm not the only one in the house that uses the stairs, I (naively) hoped that other family members would carry the stuffed baskets up and down the stairs as needed.
They didn't. "Ah," I thought, "it's because the baskets aren't obvious." So, I put them ON the stairs. Unmissable, right? Wrong. Let me say that if the Olympics ever decided to include "obstacle races" in their schedules, I have perfectly trained contenders right here. My family can step, skip, or leapfrog over the basket, but for reasons I never can fathom, they won't carry it.
Depending on what else is going on in my day, my reaction runs the gamut between mild annoyance to deep disillusionment. In the end, I mostly mutter to myself in quiet resignation as I carry basket loads up and down the stairs, hoping all the drudgery would at least endow me with Michelle-Obama-style arms.
But, it's not all doom and gloom. My stair trips are a gentle everyday reminder of the negative impact of the weight of expectations. They illustrate clearly what happens when we build expectations in our minds of how life (and others) should work.
Every time I walk around my house tsk-tsking and picking up after my family, I have to admit it's not just their fault for utilizing every square inch of available room, but mine too for expecting them to clean up on my schedule, not theirs. The day I stop expecting someone else to carry the pile of laundry upstairs is the day I truly give happiness and contentment a chance.
So, the writing on the wall is clear: no expectations = no disappointment. But I know what you are thinking.
Does this mean we should abandon all goals, ours, and the ones we have for those around us, especially our children? Why even bother to attempt anything if we are not supposed to have expectations? Won't this just make us all slobs?
But before we get there, let's address what expectations are and aren't.
The weight of expectations
Expectations come in all shapes and sizes.
Here's a thought experiment—what's the first thing that comes to your mind in the following scenarios?
- The person walking into the room ahead of you doesn't hold the door open for you to enter even though you are right behind them.
- You look at the $50 worth of lottery tickets you bought and realize that not only did you not win the mega millions, but you didn't get a single number right on any of these tickets.
- You planned a great trip and had everything ready to go, and at the last minute, someone in your travel party contracted Covid, and now none of you can go.
If we're being honest, any of these events can cause us to snap, be unkind, or even be disillusioned, though some of these pale into insignificance in the longer term.
Also, we probably are aware of some of life's enormous expectations, but I bet most of us don't even notice the numerous little ones we have of ourselves and others. It's only when we experience deep disappointment or frustration do we even begin to realize that, over time, unmet expectations are building in the background.
What expectations are and aren't
Phillip Moffit, a vipassana mediation teacher, wrote this about expectations.
Expectations assume a certain result and are future-based. They create pressure in your life and hold your present sense of well-being hostage to a future that may or may not happen.
Expectations are caused because we want things to be done a "certain way." Unfortunately, other than our own actions, we have no control over the outcome because there are too many dynamic forces at work in the world.
Goals versus expectations
Given how insidious expectations can be, it's worth asking, "Why even bother putting in the effort if we can't have expectations?"
The answer lies in the difference between goals and expectations.
A goal is a bar we set for ourselves to work towards. A goal is tied to the action. It's all about the effort we intend to expend in getting to the bar.
An expectation, on the other hand, is tied to the outcome. It assumes that we will reach that bar eventually.
By holding our happiness in abeyance until we achieve the outcome (expectations) instead of enjoying the process (effort), we are essentially risking all our joy.
What if we wait months or years and the outcome never materializes?
It's easy to see why that can be so disappointing and notice all the time we squandered away when we could have been happy.
How to lose the weight of expectations
Of all the weight-loss stories, the one you're likely to be most proud of is the happiness you feel when you can get rid of the weight of expectations. Losing pounds on the scale pales in comparison.
We can tame our expectations, so it doesn't crush our souls. Here are three common-sense tips the experts recommend. I'm personally trying to focus on these to help me lose or at least lessen the weight of expectations.
Live in the present
Adopting a "where you go, there you are" approach to life is a practical way to escape the tyranny of expectations. This means simply focusing on what's in front of us instead of wishing life were different.
Respond. Don't react.
You cannot unring a bell.
Reflexively spilling out what's on our mind is "reaction." Adding a pause between thought and action (or words) can prevent us from saying or doing things we may regret. It takes patience and mindfulness to learn to respond instead of reacting, but it can be done.
Responding instead of reacting is a wonderful antidote to deal with unfulfilled expectations since it can save us the agony caused by frustration and disappointment.
Make plans. But realize you can't create outcomes.
Here's the difference between planning and expecting outcomes.
If you have a thirsty horse, you can plan to take the horse to the water. But you can't plan to make the horse drink the water. That's not up to you. Getting angry and frustrated if the horse refuses to drink the water is a consequence of the weight of expectations.
The weight of expectations turns us into what spiritual teacher and self-help author Eckhart Tolle calls "habitual waiters." We wait to start living life until our expectations—a new job, a better relationship, a specific number in our bank accounts—are fulfilled. What we forget is that life passes right under our feet in the meantime.
So, the next time notice when you are frustrated that the croissants you attempted don't resemble the flaky goods you find at your bakery but would rather make excellent substitute lacrosse balls, remind yourself that it is not the destination but the journey that matters.
Mindfulness isn't difficult. We just need to remember to do it. Sharon Salzberg.