The Hell of High Expectations

You’re doing this to yourselves.


Humans tell themselves three grand lies: memories, thoughts and expectations. Memories are a distortion of the past, thoughts are a distortion of the present, and expectations are a distortion of the future.

Why are they lies? Well, our memories are imperfect, our thoughts are poisoned by bias, and expectations are usually wrong. Nothing happened exactly as we remember it, nothing is happening exactly as we think it is, and nothing turns out as we expect.

Today, I want to tell you a tiny story about the third lie: expectations.


I think one of our grand goals in life, if we want to boil it down to its essence and most general of terms, at least on an individual level, is satisfaction. It’s what we strive for. Satisfaction is sort of the blended area of the Venn diagram between contentment, pride and bliss. We take pleasure in knowing things mostly turned out well, that things are mostly okay, that the job was well done, and our life’s work was appreciated. Satisfaction can come from a warm cookie, a completed project, a moment of pride, a kind word. Satisfaction can from from almost anywhere — Mick Jagger be damned.

However, satisfaction can also be sabotaged before we even reach those said moments: by what? By high expectations. Let’s say you expected a promotion and it never came. You’re left with a bad taste in your mouth, and decidedly unsatisfied. Or let’s say you went to a five-star restaurant, expecting it to be a lavish dining experience, yet the steak came out well done (what monster kills a cow twice?) and the server was curt and cold. What should’ve been satisfying was not. In each case, our expectations were not met.


When going through life, it is natural to expect things. Of course, when we do, we set ourselves up to have the rug pulled out from under us, or we leave the door open for astonishment. I’ve loosely calculated this, and I will share that equation for you here:

[Event] — [Expectations] = Satisfaction

You can see here, clearly, that the higher your expectations for something — a relationship, an election, a meal, a concert — the lower your satisfaction. And, if your expectations are higher than what you actually experienced, then you end up with a net-negative satisfaction. Disappointment.

When we talk about people who expect a lot from the world, we call them things like “demanding,” or “entitled.” In your mind, picture a demanding or entitled person. Do you ever picture them with a smile? Do you ever picture them blissful or at peace? Of course not. They’re always chasing the next white whale. They’re always chasing the next thrill.

High expectations — loosely, there are several other visceral and contributing factors — can lead to things like codependency and chemical dependency. We demand from our partners more than what they’re willing to offer. We chase the next high hoping to feel the same rush as our first, or up the dosage or frequency so we’re certain we feel it. High expectations on a societal level can lead to things like civil unrest from entitled people (hi, alt-right!). Imagine being the kind of person who’s constantly feeling disappointed and harboring resentment. Nothing can quite measure up to the Nirvana we’ve concocted in our brains.


In zen teachings, they talk about “A Beginner’s Mind.” And while some people wrongly assume it means to expect nothing, I think the true intent is to keep expectations reasonable. If anything, err on the side of caution. Tempering expectations encourages us to keep moving, it’s a subtle nod of approval, a step in the right direction, gentle words of encouragement. “Hey, this didn’t turn out so bad. Let’s keep going.”

I believe the second way to alleviate some of the hell of high expectations is to focus more squarely on things as they are happening. I mentioned some time last year that I’ve stopped setting goals. And while I meant it, I didn’t completely cease all goal-directed behavior, I simply didn’t put as much weight into them, or set as many of them, as I used to. The weight of the expectations acts as kind of a multiple. If you focus intently on what you expect, you’re increasing the value of expectations and setting yourself up for greater disappointment down the road should things not quite level up.

We are only guaranteed the present, and so to focus more generally on how you plan to spend your time, vs what you hope to gain out of it, can help prevent you from inevitable disappointment. For example, let’s say you bank on receiving a year-end bonus from your job, and so you max out your credit cards knowing you’ll be re-upped, and suddenly you’re left angry and scrambling for the cash you did not have on hand. You put too much weight in expectations, it dictated your present behavior, and ultimately resulted in a new state that’s mentally, emotionally and financially more perilous than the one you were previously in. Tempering expectations and putting less stock in them can help to ward off inevitable heartache.


One final word of note on expectations: lest you think “oh, then I shall expect the worst,” then your doomsday brain is causing you present unrest, and actually sabotaging your current mood. That’s fear, and fear wreaks havoc on our minds, bodies and souls. People who live in constant fear are, to paraphrase George Lang, are paying interest in advance on a debt that never comes due. That takes an incredible toll. Like I said, keep expectations reasonable.

Expecting something in the middle of the range of possible outcomes, while not focusing too highly on them, is the shortcut to satisfaction. You may even be pleasantly surprised. And, encouraged by things turning out okay, a job well done, or a partner who meets your reasonable needs and wants, you’ll become emboldened, to keep going, find happiness, and strive for peace of mind.

I don’t expect many of you to listen to this tiny pearl and put it into practice, but I hope some of you might at least consider it. That’d be damn satisfying. Just like a warm cookie.


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