Not-So-Great Expectations

by Abby on November 26, 2012

couple in movie theater

Not me or my husband

On a rare date night over the holiday weekend, my husband and I went out to a movie. As has happened several times before, we cut it too close trying to get the kids fed and ourselves out the door, and the movie we had planned to see was sold out. After a moment of indecision, we decided to see the next showing of “Flight.” Neither of us knew anything about it other than that it starred Denzel Washington. Good enough for us.

We both ended up enjoying the movie, which sparked some deeper conversations than we normally have. Mainly since our normal conversations are about laundry and the squirrel that may or may not have taken up residence in the basement. But the point isn’t whether the movie was good or bad, the point is that neither of us had any expectations going into it.

I have found again and again that a big source of unhappiness in my life is caused by my expectations. Mostly, my expectations about other people. How often do you catch yourself thinking something like, a good husband should be X. A real friend would never so Y. Well-raised children should always Z. Me? Often.

And then when people don’t conform to my expectations — as so often happens with unspoken, frequently unrealistic expectations — I am disappointed. Annoyed. Bitter.

I think the expectation of gratitude is the worst. How many times have you thought, I did such-and-such for this person and THAT’S how they act?! And I’m not just talking about making dinner for my kids. Expecting a certain response takes away all the enjoyment of doing the nice thing in the first place.

But something kind of great happens when you’re able to let go of your expectations. Not only are you pleasantly surprised if things turn out well, but you free yourself from the anxiety of worrying about what happens if they don’t. You release yourself from caring about the outcome. If the Denzel Washington movie had been terrible, I wouldn’t have cared. Because I didn’t expect anything going into it.

I realize that letting go of expectations is filed under “easier said than done.” It’s like when you’re single and people tell you to stop worrying so much about finding a mate. “The minute you stop looking the perfect guy will fall in your lap!” these people say confidently and not at all believably. So then you go around telling yourself: Stop looking. I’m not looking. I’m really, REALLY not looking. This is me not looking for a boyfriend! But that’s like telling someone to not think of an elephant. So then you’re STILL looking but trying to pretend that you’re NOT and beating yourself up over it. Or maybe that was just me.

Anyway, it takes practice, this releasing-your-expectations thing. I tried it again when we took the whole family to a holiday event that turned out to be horribly crowded, expensive, and not that much fun. In the past I might have been really pissed off about it and felt guilty that I dragged everyone there. But not this year. Oh, well. Better luck next time.

So now I’m going to turn my attention — or wait, LACK of attention? This is hard! — to my expectations of others. This is me not caring if I get any comments on this post. This is me not expecting my husband to read my mind and get me the perfect gift for Christmas. And THIS is me not expecting that I will magically transform into a chill, go-with-the-flow person this holiday season. Because, come on. This is mindfulness, not magic.

Have you consciously let go of expectations in your life? If so, what was the outcome?

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Lou Mello November 26, 2012 at 8:01 am

I try not to have great expectations in general, although it is hard to do. I try to give folks the benefit of the doubt until they prove themselves to be unworthy of any further attention. The best thing for me is to just try to keep an even keel and do a little good each day. If that good gets returned in some manner, fine; if not, then that’s OK too.


Abby November 26, 2012 at 10:24 am

It’s that last part I have trouble with: if the good does not get returned, then that’s OK too.


Lou Mello November 26, 2012 at 6:38 pm

I know we would like to have folks be good and nice in return, but, it just doesn’t always happen and a lot of what I do is for people that I will never meet so I don’t get upset when someone doesn’t return the “good” in person. I know what I do and what i can control and the other stuff just has to roll off my back.


Kathleen Basi November 26, 2012 at 8:25 am

Mostly I just have to keep lowering my expectations of what I can accomplish. I hope someday the curve will turn around, once the kids are, yanno, dressing themselves and whatnot…but for now, I have to keep lowering the bar on myself.


Abby November 26, 2012 at 10:25 am

But lowering the bar in a more realistic, empowering way, yes? Instead of a defeated, can’t-keep-up way.


Beth Landau November 26, 2012 at 8:47 am

Great post, Abby. In the past year, I’ve had to learn how to keep living a full life despite battling chronic illness. One of my biggest “breakthroughs” was when I gave up the expectation of a pain free day. That was my definition of a good day. Any pain and it was a bad day. I set myself up for daily disappointment. When I was finally able to accept a certain level of pain, I found much more satisfaction in the things I could do. And the more I found satisfaction, the more I was able to do. Giving up the expectation of a pain free day has not cured my ills, but it has given me one of my best coping skills: optimism.


Abby November 26, 2012 at 10:27 am

Wow, Beth. That particular form of letting go of expectations has never occurred to me. But it totally makes sense how you explained it. I’m so glad you’re able to do that. Thanks so much for your comment!


Corey Feldman November 26, 2012 at 8:48 am

relaxing expectations is hard, but something I am working on. Especially expectations for myself.


Abby November 26, 2012 at 10:28 am

That’s a great point, Corey. I didn’t even consider that slant. We are hardest on ourselves.


Ali November 26, 2012 at 6:37 pm

You are a beautiful writer and a great mom. And you’re right. I am very much like you, and constantly sad because I want more for myself and from those around me (and I already think my expectations are already quite low). I try to live by this philosophy:
“Expect the worst, but hope for the best.”


Abby November 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

Thanks, Ali. I love being pleasantly surprised. And as I try to let go of expectations, I find it happens more & more.


Kathy at kissing the frog November 27, 2012 at 6:04 pm

I usually find that if I have expectations they turn out to be the opposite. If I am excited for something, it is a let down. If I am dreading something, it is a pleasant surprise. I guess I need to learn to open my heart and mind a bit more, but I’m such a worrier that that’s hard for me.


Abby November 27, 2012 at 8:38 pm

I feel like that sometimes, too. The lower my expectations the better it will turn out.


jetts31 November 28, 2012 at 1:11 am

Working in sales will destroy any expectations you might have had. Its typically a crap shoot every person you talk to and every deal you enter in to. It has done wonders for me as far as expectations go. I usually don’t expect anything and just watch as I see where the situation takes me.


Abby November 28, 2012 at 3:49 pm

My husband says the same thing!


Angie Mizzell November 28, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I was having a similar thought the other day, about how I expect the best from people. So, when a lady almost ran me over in the gym parking lot (hello, you’re supposed to yield to pedestrians, especially at the speed hump!) I felt myself getting huffy and full of attitude. It occurred to me that if I react negatively to other people’s bad actions, I’m really no better. I suppose it’s good to be hopeful, optimistic even. But expectations (especially high ones) can be dangerous if not kept in proper perspective.


Abby November 28, 2012 at 3:50 pm

I get what you’re saying, but I think you have a right to be huffy if someone nearly runs you over!


Malia Jacobson November 28, 2012 at 2:58 pm

A wise person told me “Expectations are per-meditated resentments.” I think you hit on something vital when you mentioned “unspoken” expectations. It’s so easy for expectations of others to bubble up without me even realizing it, so of course it’s hard to always communicate about what I’m expecting. When I find that someone has fallen short of an expectation, I try to first ask myself if the expectation was fair and fairly communicated to begin with. I think it’s OK and normal to have expectations (I expect my kids to treat people a certain way, and you’d better believe they hear about it when they don’t!) but best not to expect those expectations to be met, if that makes sense.


Abby November 28, 2012 at 3:51 pm

“pre-meditated resentments” — ooh, that’s good. The past couple days I stopped expecting my husband to clean up after himself and I feel much less stressed. Go figure!


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