Reframing Expectations

In my journey over the past couple of years, I’ve experienced an amazing amount of peacefulness and calm (often in the midst of chaos), and I rarely experience stress. When I start telling people about this, I usually get one of four comments or questions:

  1. Where are you getting your drugs, or you must be drinking heavily? Uh, no!
  2. You’re lying – no one has such little stress! Nice try!
  3. You must not have any challenges or bad things in your life! Nope!
  4. I want some of what you have! And that’s where I can help.

The challenge has come in explaining how I manage to live life with little or no stress. Two of the keys are letting go of things outside of your control and the integration of trust and surrender.

While the concepts and overall process are really simple, I’ve come to realize that unless and until you’re living and experiencing it, it appears to be complex. This was evident at last weekend’s Arrows of Truth retreat, but the result was that we went through a process that really helped to simplify and clarify things for the attendees. And now I want to begin to share that process with all of you.

Today, I want to start with the concept of reframing expectations. Too often I hear that the way to avoid disappointment is to lower your expectations (or to have no expectations at all). That doesn’t make sense to me and feels like the equivalent of settling, so I shifted my perspective to this: raise your expectations but lower (or eliminate) your attachment to the outcomes.

It’s a simple concept, but it can be challenging when we’ve lived our entire lives deeply attached to outcomes. We’ve often falsely believed that we can control things outside of ourselves, and therefore we’ve taken every failed outcome, dream or expectation personally. That’s a lot of history, baggage and old stories to overcome, and I won’t try to address it all here.

Getting back to expectations, the best way to explain this reframing is through an example. Let’s look at a personal relationship situation, starting with how we typically frame expectations. Here’s the hypothetical:

A woman is disappointed with her partner’s communication failures (e.g. doesn’t listen, isn’t present, isn’t compassionate, isn’t empathetic, and only wants to offer solutions and advice) and often doesn’t feel heard.

I’m sure that many of you can relate to this situation. In this scenario, the typical approach or framing of expectations goes like this:

Her expectation in the next interaction is that her partner will listen, be present, be compassionate, be empathetic and, instead of trying to fix things, will just listen to her. They have the interaction, her partner doesn’t act as expected, and she is disappointed, hurt, angry, etc.

Frankly, it’s not a surprising response given how she framed the expectations, but what if instead we reframed the expectations this way:

What she wants: For her partner to listen, be present, be compassionate, be empathetic and to just listen.

What she expects: For her partner to do what she wants – to act exactly the way that she wants her partner to act. In other words, she expects to effectively control the outcome and get what she wants.

No wonder things don’t go well. Even if the partner is better at delivering on the wants from the last interaction, there will likely be disappointment (and resulting judgments) because the partner did not do what she wanted.

It may seem like a small difference (separating wants from expectations), but it’s a critical perspective shift. The disappointment doesn’t come from not getting what you want, but from the other person not doing what you want (the expectation that someone will do what you want). Critically, they are not the same thing – wants and expectations. We all know that we can’t control what other people do, but we falsely believe we can when we expect others to do things a certain way, and that’s where the disappointment comes in.

Let me be clear – I’m not excusing the partner’s communication failures or suggesting that there’s anything wrong with having wants. In fact, I’m a big fan of getting clear about what you want and then clearly communicating what you want, even if you don’t get it. The key shift is acknowledging that I don’t (and can’t) control anyone else, which helps shift my own experience to minimize my emotional disappointment. Then I can make a decision on whether or not to make bigger changes in my life, situations or relationships based upon whether or how often I get (or don’t get) what I want.

Let me quickly explain the concept of emotional disappointment (versus data disappointment). First, data disappointment is a given, but emotional disappointment is a choice. Second, data disappointment is the factual truth that you wanted one outcome, but you got a different (usually lesser) outcome. For example, you wanted to get the big sale, but you didn’t get it – the gap between what you wanted and what outcome you got is a factual reality. You wanted someone to say yes when you asked them on a date, but they said no: a factual or data gap between your want and your outcome. Third, emotional disappointment is the outcome of the degree to which your emotions were invested in the outcome and, most important, what you made the data disappointment mean about or relating to you.

When you don’t get the sale, that’s a fact. However, the emotional disappointment comes from what you make that data gap mean. For example, you feel like you’re a failure as a sales person, you feel your job is at risk and that scares you, you feel less than compared to the other sales people who are getting the sales, etc. Similarly in the dating situation, you feel like the “no” (pure data) means that you’re not good enough, you worry you’ll be alone, you get angry because the other person doesn’t appreciate or value you, etc. Getting a “no” is a fact, but often our emotional reaction is not to the word (fact) but to the rejection that I interpret the “no” to mean.

There have been many times in my life (and especially in relationships) when people told me not to be disappointed, but that means having no wants. If I want something and I don’t get it, I will be disappointed (data disappointment). How much or the nature of my emotional disappointment depends on how attached I am to what I want (in other words, do I want it or need it). It also depends on how much I’ve wrapped myself into and around the want so that not getting what I want is all about me (and how I see myself) rather than about what I want.

I could go on, but I think this is a good enough start for today. There is much more involved in achieving more peace, tranquility and joy in your life (even in the midst of the realities and challenges of life) – emotional awareness, acceptance, trust, etc. But just by beginning with a simple reframing to separate your wants (your desires) from your expectations (the impossible goal of controlling the behavior of others), you will immediately experience a shift in your emotional disappointment, resulting in less stress and a deeper sense of genuine control in your life. Doesn’t that sound like a great deal?

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