Great Expectations

No, I’m not talking about the classic Charles Dickens’ novel or the movie based upon the book. I’m talking about the seeming challenges we have with expectations – setting them, meeting them (or other people meeting them) and how we respond when expectations are not met. Too often the result of these challenges is the desire or fact of lowering our expectations. I regularly hear these phrases from people – “I guess I need to lower my expectations” or “I should lower my expectations” – but that is NOT the answer. The goal is noble – minimizing or avoiding disappointment – but lowering our expectations is the easy way out and it’s the way that necessarily diminishes our outcomes, our relationships and our dreams. But if you’re not going to lower your expectations, you need another tool in your toolbox and that’s what I want to share with you.

Yesterday, I was catching up over coffee with an old friend and she said “I need to lower my expectations” about a situation, and my response was something I’ve never said before: “I believe in having no expectations and simultaneously have high expectations.” Obviously, this was confusing to my friend, but it’s the type of belief statement I often embrace to help me clarify my challenges and to find new thinking or solutions. You all know that I’m an “and / both” thinker and believer (not an “or” person), and the high expectation with no expectations concept is an example of and / both thinking. It’s also another example of my constant search for ways to live and lead at intersections. Intersections in that I look for the place where two seemingly inconsistent concepts intersect because those are the places where I am at my best, live my best, create my best and impact my best.

Back to the high expectations with no expectations intersection. What I’m really suggesting is that we continue to have high expectations (of ourselves, of others and of outcomes) – perhaps even higher than ever before knowing that we may have been playing small in the form of lower expectations – but release our attachment to the expectations and the outcomes. Essentially, to realize that there is a difference between being disappointed (a factual assessment of outcomes or people not meeting expectations) versus feeling disappointed or being disappointed in someone else when expectations are not met. So often I hear people say that I’m tired of being disappointed or in other people disappointment them, which tells me that they’re referring to the emotions related to the disappointment OR what they make the unmet expectations mean about them.

Hopefully, you’re still with me – I know this may be some different thinking – because when I can differentiate between being disappointed versus feeling disappointed it changes my experience, my relationships and my outcomes. Let’s look at an example of what I outlined above in a real life situation. Recently, I was looking forward to getting together for dinner with a friend. I had not seen her in some time and I was genuinely excited about getting together with her. Thus, I had high expectations of seeing a friend and of the time and conversations that I knew we would share together. The day before the scheduled dinner, she let me know that a conflict had arisen and she was not going to be able to make dinner. If you know my beliefs about choices, you know that I “heard” her as saying I’m choosing this other thing (the conflict) over having dinner with me. I believe that to be true – everything is a choice – but that perspective did not have an emotional impact on me (it was just the reality that my friend chose something else over our dinner).

Now let’s look at the different ways I could have experienced the fact (data only) that my friend was not going to have dinner with me as scheduled. First, were my expectations met? No, because my expectations were to have dinner, see a friend and share that time together. Thus, there was a factual disappointment as a result of the outcomes not factually lining up with my expectations. And I don’t want to lower any of my expectations about my friend or this dinner. That would diminish our friendship, our relationship and likely our time together. In fact, my friend said when they cancelled “I hope you’re not disappointed.” Think about it – does she really not want me to be disappointed? Does she want me to not care whether we get together or not, such that whether we get together doesn’t matter? Of course not. What she was really saying is that she didn’t want me to feel disappointed or perhaps not be disappointed in her. The foregoing approach to disappointment – being disappointed – is an example of having high expectations and knowing that sometimes our expectations are not met, whether by others or by circumstances.

So now let’s look at the other side of disappointment – the feeling disappointed or making the failure of expectations mean something about me so that the disappointment becomes a story about me (and never a positive one). When my friend cancelled dinner I could have felt sad or angry about her choice or about missing out on the opportunity to spend time together. That would be the feeling of disappointment. By the way, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having feelings. In fact, feelings are almost always healthy unless they carry on too long (self defined) or they’re unleashed at or on other people in unhealthy ways. Because we tend to avoid feelings that we judge to be negative (sadness, grief, anger, etc.), lowering expectations might seem like a good strategy but I’d rather navigate the emotions differently rather than lowering my expectations.

One of the reasons that the emotions come up when expectations are not met is because I make the incident and facts (in this case a cancelled dinner) mean something about me. Imagine if instead of being disappointed I had created the following story:

She cancelled dinner. I’m not a priority. I’m not important enough. She’s doesn’t like me enough. She’d rather do something else because I don’t matter.

You get the point. It may seem extreme, but it’s not at all. This process of making situations about me are typically at the heart of the emotions that we experience when expectations are not met. Emotions are personal and usually are the result of situations or experiences that impact me, have something to do with me or I make them about me. When I can take myself out of the situation and remind myself that it’s not always about me, then I can experience failed expectations without feeling bad, angry or anything.

There you have it. A very different way to experience failed expectations and thus a way to simultaneously have high expectations without having emotional attachment to those expectations. It’s challenging to do this and I often feel disappointment, but that’s okay – it’s healthy. The key is to do the best I can to not make the failed expectations about me personally. As Don Miguel Ruiz famously wrote in The Four Agreements, “don’t take anything personally (the Second Agreement) and taking things personally or making them personal (about me) is usually at the root of what we consider the part of disappointment that we want to avoid.

I’m not suggesting that the foregoing will be easy, but perhaps is will be. Once you consider it you’ll see that it’s actually a pretty simple approach, which is what I like about it. I don’t believe that the world needs lower expectations about anything, and I hope you’ll consider this different approach to (indeed, a different story about) expectations and disappointment. Instead of lowering expectations, let’s all embrace great expectations and understand that we might be disappointed and then it’s up to you whether you feel disappointed. Bring on the greater expectations and the greater outcomes, relationships and impact that will follow.


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