The Power of Expectations
“Oh, the places you’ll go! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!” – Dr. Seuss
Really? Great places, I hear you scoff.
If you’re in the middle of a separation or divorce, or going through a really rocky patch, that Great Place you glimpsed on your wedding day probably looks like a not-so-great dump these days.
Truth is: Dr Seuss did set our expectations for life pretty darn high! (Fairytales, rom-coms and Disney have something to answer for, too). So how do you move on when those expectations–for life, for love–lead you to heartbreak?
Let’s break it down
Love them or hate them, expectations–defined as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case”–help us to reach for great heights. Anticipate possible dangers. And allow us to predict and forecast how an experience will unfold. They’re what drives the belief you’ll have a faithful marriage; they also underpin that argument you have with your partner when they throw you a curveball.
They ready our heart rate for moments of pure joy, or despair. Save us from danger, from risking our lives, or from doing something totally embarrassing.
Expectations carry a badge of trust or a shield of warning. They give us standards to uphold. And they offer us the opportunity to make so-called ‘informed’ decisions (that is, if you believe in crystal balls) before participating in an activity.
But, here’s where things get messed up
A Harvard study led by psychologist and happiness expert Dan Gilbert concluded that expectations can actually lessen the joy and happiness factor in life.
Expectations present us with an alternative outcome for every situation – the one you role play in your mind ahead of the event, and actual reality. So, rather than wholeheartedly accepting and owning what happens to us minute by minute, there’s always a decision pending about which would have been the better outcome. We deliberate, compare and usually hedge our bets.
Expectations add inflated ambition to new experiences, a great deal of internal pressure and a massive amount of emotion, all of which may or may not be useful depending on the situation.
Where do expectations come from?
Turns out, our brains have evolved to become “experience simulators”, as Gilbert puts it.
Think of it like this: pilots practice in flight simulators so they don’t make mistakes in real life.
“Human beings actually have the marvelous adaptation that means they can have experiences in their heads before they try them out in real life,” he says.
These simulated experiences become our expectations.
Amazing, right? But that means rather than being completely present or open to the new possibilities that our future holds, each situation is influenced by an expectation.
Because of this, we miss experiencing so much joy and happiness in simply living life as it happens. We fail to listen to others’ points of view because we are too busy remembering our pre-rehearsed lines. We avoid situations where we expect to be uncomfortable or feel pain. We are convinced that we’re right. And, we would rather argue a preconceived idea than compromise, or in some cases, change our tune to agree with our spouse or ex.
The thing is, an expectation is purely conjured up in our mind’s eye. It’s not reality. However, we attach to it very real and significant meaning.
The good news: now you know this, you can change it.
Advice to help you heal and move forwards powerfully
Since my divorce I’ve spent a lot of time actively healing so I can move forwards with a life I love.
One thing I’ve learned? When you stop playing the blame game – no matter under what circumstance the relationship may have ended – you’re immediately empowered. I’m not saying your ex wasn’t at fault – particularly if there was any kind of abuse involved – but there comes a point where you have to look beyond what happened in the past in order to move on with your future.
Try this exercise: write a Mills and Boon style love story about your relationship – start to finish. The purpose: to figure out where you may be able to take (some) responsibility for the breakdown in your relationship (at first, this concept may be difficult to comprehend if you’re feeling hurt or betrayed!). This isn’t an exercise in self-punishment, trust me. It’s about gaining a deeper understanding of how things broke down.
To make this easier, I’d like to share a little about what I discovered from doing this exercise. (Yes, it has to do with expectations!)
So, our love affair began… and my story went on and on, page after page. Mostly happy, until it wasn’t.
Finally, I was done. I read and re-read the story… and, I made a major discovery.
In the early days of our relationship, it became clear that I was systematically ticking off desirable attributes on my virtual ‘husband must-have checklist’.
My list was comprehensive and detailed but very attainable (so I thought!). Perhaps 15 points long.
The issue was that as soon as I saw that my new boyfriend (now ex) had checked off just five items on my list, I started calling him Mr Right.
At this point in my story, I could suddenly see what happened: my subconscious took over and ticked off every other ‘must-have’ on my list …even if he didn’t fulfill the criteria.
And there was my problem: I now had an expectation that he could do everything on my personal checklist.
So, when I needed a qualified carpenter, a keen fisherman, or someone to enjoy country music with, I became internally frustrated with the in-house talent.
I didn’t quite realize this at the time. And I never verbalized these frustrations. But looking back, I’m sure my body language and mood would have suggested just as much.
I suddenly realized how stressful it must have been for my ex feeling like he always needed to live up to my fabricated and totally unrealistic expectations just so he could please me.
Would things have been different if not for my expectations? Maybe, maybe not. In hindsight, perhaps I should have listened to this advice from Tony Robbins: “Turn your expectations into appreciation and your whole life will change.”
The power of expectations
“It’s worth taking stock of how often our imagination, our expectations and assumptions, bleed into reality and actually change experience or change our bodies.”
– Chris Berdik
As you walk forwards from here (from a separation, divorce, perhaps an abusive partner and into your new life), I challenge you to continually ask yourself if your experiences are being influenced by expectations. Are you putting your past into your future? Are you open to the power of a new experience (even if you’ve lived through the same situation before)?
Acknowledge your expectations and run with them – you still have the power. Or bench them for a whole new realm of amazing possibilities that comes from living in the moment.
If you’re currently facing the reality of a breakup, separation, divorce, co-parenting journey or are a victim of domestic abuse, there is now an app to help you document absolutely everything – information, communication and evidence – so you’re ready for whatever legal obligations may arise.
For more support, download my FREE e-book, 5 Separation & Divorce Hacks. It’s packed with helpful tips and advice from those who’ve been right where you are now. It will help you go in the right direction faster, and less painfully.
I’d love to know what expectations have been holding you back from new experiences or that may have contributed to your reality today. Let me know in the comments below.
You’re doing just fine. Take it one day at a time. And remember, be especially kind to yourself.
Founder | Hello Mojo