When I observe our lives, I can’t help to notice that most of our disappointments, hurts or resentments come from our expectations. The expectations we have on other people, or on how things should be.
The other day I was disappointed because I asked a friend a favour – and she said no. I got annoyed with someone who forgot our appointment and messed up my schedule. Or I got hurt after an argument with another friend.
I really admire and value Byron Katie’s work, because she invites us to question our assumptions and beliefs. Part of her work is very similar to a CBT approach, some of it can be parented to NLP as well, so it’s quite familiar to me and also very refreshing as it offers a different perspective.
Byron Katie suggests a series of questions that help challenge our assumptions. Checking if they’re actually verifiable facts or only suppositions. And helping us to discover how those stories affect our behaviours and interactions with others.
I’ve noticed in myself and my clients, that a lot of our stressful assumptions are worded like “It should be different”. For example in my own examples, “My friend should help me” or “My colleague should have remembered our appointment” or “my friend should agree with me”. The should word is a very good sign that we are having expectations about people or situations.
We very often have expectations about ourselves too! “I should have said or done that”, “I shouldn’t feel this way” or “I should be stronger”. Does that resonate?
So what’s wrong with expectations? Well, the problem comes from when they are not being met. For most of us, that triggers a negative reaction, ranging from hurt to anger. And the curious thing is where do those expectations come from? Most of the time, we have never explicitly agreed on them, we just assume that’s how things should be.
If you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. It’s like agreeing silently in your mind that someone should give you £3 million and then become angry when they don’t – all this without them even having any idea that this deal existed!
Yes, you may argue that this example is an extreme, and that for your expectations it’s different because they are “normal”. But are they? What are they based on? Has there been a clear agreement between you and the person you have expectations on? What about situations? Where did you create those expectations and why are you unconsciously convinced that’s how it should be?
I don’t have any answer here, but I’m intrigued about how our mind works. And even more how it creates situations that result in stress and disappointment. It’s like we set ourselves up for failure over and over again. I do agree that society contributes hugely in creating those expectations, what we see as “the norm”. But how helpful is it? Could those expectations actually be at the root of a lot of our suffering?
So what do we do with all that?
I recently thought of an alternative that might work in the context of having expectations from other people. Instead of expecting them to behave in a certain way and then get angry or hurt when they don’t, why don’t we simply ask for what we want and need?
Because in the end, that’s where most our expectations are rooted in. But we are not necessarily fully aware of that, we just automatically “expect”. It’s a little bit like what we used to do as children, because things were given to us without needing to ask (food, water or shelter for example for most of us), we’ve carried this habit in adulthood without questioning it – at least a lot of the time. We expect things to happen, we sometimes even feel entitled to them happening. And when they don’t, that’s when trouble arises.
So perhaps one of the first steps would be to become aware of when we have expectations or feel entitled to something. Then we could explore what are the underlying needs and wants beneath them, and also observe if our pattern of expecting it to happen automatically is at play – which in TA terms means we are likely in the child ego state. And then we could step back in our adult ego state, and take responsibility for expressing our needs and wants. How does that sound so far?
But then recently I’ve been thinking about something else. What if, actually, we managed to completely let go of those expectations and needs? What if instead of still holding on to how things should be – albeit asking for what we need or want – we managed to let go of them all together?
This is quite similar to the buddhist philosophy around detachement, where we are taught that our desires are the source of suffering. Simply because when we don’t get what we need or want , even when we ask for it, it can become painful. But if we learn to accept things as they are we might head up to more inner peace and contentment.
Having said that, it is MUCH easier said than done. For once, how do you do that?! It does involve a very high level of letting go, and when we try to let go, very often our ego gets in the way and freaks out. That’s where I find meditation for example to be very useful. To slowly learn to distance yourself from your ego’s attachment, and learn deep inner letting go.
I’ve also noticed that in the quest of letting go, we might face our inner demons. Our fears, our insecurities and a bunch of limiting beliefs. This is a very good opportunity to resolve a lot of issues that get in the way of being the best version of ourselves, actually ; even if it can be quite challenging at times.
Once more, I’ll quote Byron Katie on that subject, as even if her work is not technically spiritual, her approach is interestingly very similar. She too advocates acceptance and letting go as a path to happiness. As she reminds us wisely that when we fight against how things are, that’s when we lose our peace of mind:
“You’re arguing with reality, and when you do that, you lose, but only 100 percent of the time. It’s like trying to teach a cat to bark. You’re saying, “I’m going to devote my whole life to teaching that cat to bark.” And you teach it and teach it, and at the end of ten years, the cat looks up at you and says, “Meow.”