Letting Go of Expectations

Search for “let go of expectations” and you will find oodles of pages that tell us why it is important to let go of our expectations but they never really tell us how (including my own musings on expectations and acceptance). I suspect this is in part because it is very difficult to accomplish! It’s much easier to give us reasons for not expecting things to be a certain way. And it’s real easy to give us the strategy “let go of expectations.” Talk about a tautology! To let go of expectations, let go of your expectations. Well, duh!

So, i thought i’d share some ideas i am experimenting with for letting go of expectations. They are strategies that might help us to let go without tautology. Feel free to share others in the comments!

As with just about everything, the first crucial step is to become aware of what’s going on. When we stop to figure out what we’re feeling when we caught ourselves thinking “I expected her to do xyz!” it is likely that we notice that we’re angry. Anger is a feedback loop: When we get angry, our needs are not getting met. Now, expectations often parade around as needs but as i discovered, there is a crucial difference: Expectations are tied to a demand of how someone or something should be. Needs are just there. Needs ground us to the present. Expectations take us to the future or into the past. Expectations also tie us to a specific strategy: If a specific person would just act differently, our expectation would be met. If a situation would just be different than it is, our expectation would be met. So, once we notice our anger, we can look at our unmet needs and the expectations that arise with them. Expectations can certainly reveal an underlying need. For example, when i expect a person to respond to a note i left, i have a need for connection. The difference is that a need for connection is independent of the strategy to get it met by that particular person. My need for connection can be met by someone else. My expectation cannot. We are locked into a strategy.

I just outlined several steps, so let me quickly summarize them again:

  1. Discover what you are feeling
  2. List the expectations that are underneath the feeling(s)
  3. Untangle the needs from these expectations
  4. Brainstorm strategies that could meet your unmet needs

I linked to inventories of feelings and needs since these lists can be helpful when we’re trying to figure out what it is we’re feeling (though, “angry” is a likely guess when it comes to unmet expectations…). And go ahead and list those expectations as they are arising – don’t censor your thoughts. What comes out might not be “pretty” but you don’t have to show the list to anybody… This is a mental purge, after all. You will notice that it alone often dissipates the anger. I’ve often ended up laughing because some of the things were hilarious: Once i wrote the thought down, it was obvious why i was unhappy!

Even though it might look like it, this is far from easy! Of course it is not. We’re trained to expect. Without expectations, we are told, nothing will happen: We won’t change, people won’t reach goals. But if expectations are needs plus a specific strategy, this isn’t true. We can let go of our expectations by focusing on what strategies are available to us for meeting our needs. This let’s us change (but not demand that others change the way we want them to) and we can reach our goals (though maybe not in a normative way). So, letting go of our expectations does not force us to let go of our goals, unless those goals are tied to unrealistic expectations. Once we discovered the underlying needs, though, we can form goals for meeting those needs. And this might actually have a higher chance of success!

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Letting Go of Expectations — 2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Expectations « Kecia's Blog

  2. Thank you. I struggle a lot with being unhappy about unmet expectations & hopes. I’ve read many examples of wise advice counseling people to let go of their expectations (Buddhist stuff, 12 step stuff, etc.). I know there’s wisdom in this line of advice, but something that’s always bothered me about it is that it seldom addresses the healthy & appropriate role in life for goals. The message I’ve taken from most “let go of your expectations” advice has seemed to me to be almost anti-goal. But if we don’t have dreams, don’t have goals, don’t have yearnings to make the world a better place, then what are we? These things are intrinsic to our humanity, I believe. And yet, so much suffering arises from them. Your post is one of the first things I’ve read that has dealt with this question in a thoughtful and practical way. I feel curious now to inventory my goals, and then identify the human needs underlying them, and open my mind to the possibility that there may be various ways of meeting those needs, and that it would be healthy for me to assess whether my particular goals and hopes are realistic. I also value the idea of keeping in mind that we can pursue goals but we can’t control outcomes, and letting go can come in very handy once we’ve given our all to the pursuit of a goal and are awaiting the results of our efforts. Again, thanks for your post & your blog.

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