In this posting, I am going to make a case for living our lives without expectations. Most people initially think that I am saying that it is best to have positive expectations instead of negative ones, but this is not what I am saying. Let’s take the case of positive expectations first. If our expectations are met, the usual response is “just what I expected” but there is little joy since we already counted on it happening. If our expectations are NOT met, we often respond with negative behaviors, such as sulking or angry outbursts. Next, lets look at negative expectations. If these are met, we may feel less negative at that time they are met, but notice that these negative feeling are supplanted by all the negative feelings we were having as we anticipated the negative outcome. If the negative expectations are NOT met, we feel some pleasure from this outcome, but our feelings are adversely affected by the negative expectations we have been having prior to that outcome. That is, it will be harder to simply enjoy the positive outcome we are experiencing because of all the still existing memories in which a negative outcome was expected.
Another aspect of having expectations directed at someone else is that such expectations are another form of violent communication (see posting on 4/13/23 about violent communication). When someone is told we expect them to do something, there is a subtle pressure on them to do what it expected, because the clear implication is that if they do not do what we expect of them, we will be disappointed and if they do what is expected of them, we will feel happier and more approving of them.
If we have a preference for something, we are likely to enjoy it when it occurs and less likely to have negative feelings when it does not occur, although such feelings are still possible. If we tell someone else that we would prefer that they do something, they may still feel some pressure to do it, but will experience more of a sense of choice about doing it or not doing it than they would if we tell them we expect them to do it, or when we demand of them that they do it.
“If we live our life without expectations or a sense of entitlement, we will be able to experience everything that happens as a gift” (Dr. George Hill, 2019). When receiving an expected birthday or Christmas gift, we will probably be pleased but we are less likely to feel joy. However, if we receive an unexpected, surprise gift, we are more likely to feel joy. Having expectations sets us up for having pleasure rather than joy from our experiences. Additionally, an unexpected gift will more likely give rise to feelings of gratitude and appreciation, two feelings that often occur in the lives of happy people. Notice that having a sense of entitlement is an even stronger expectation. When we do not get what we feel entitled to (deserve might be another way of saying this), we usually experience even more severely negative emotions. When we do get what we feel entitled to (deserve), we usually do not experience joy, gratitude or appreciation.
Sometimes, expectations are viewed as a way of protecting ourselves from unpleasant outcomes, that is, if we live our lives without expectations, might we be more vulnerable to being “gaslighted” or conned? I would argue that when we have expectations, they can serve as “blinders”, that is, make it less likely for us to notice unexpected events. If we expect particular events, we are less likely to notice that they are not as positive or as negative as we were expecting, a kind of perceptual bias. Another example of perceptual bias is illustrated by a game I sometimes play with clients. I might ask them to look around my office and tell me about all the red things they see, and they do this. Then I ask them to close their eyes and tell me about all the green things in my office, and they are far less successful at doing this, because when they were looking around the office, they were only focused on the red items. In the same way, if we go into a relationship expecting our partner to act in a particular way, it is easier for us to miss seeing exceptions to what we are expecting. However, if we go into the relationship without expectations, we are more open to seeing whatever is actually occurring in the relationship (we have less perceptual bias).