How our expectations shape our experience
Eight years ago, I had major foot surgery. It was a very interesting experience — 3 hours in the OR, 3 days in the hospital, 10 weeks 100% non-weight bearing, and the surgeon told me, one year of recovery. I had never had any kind of surgery before, so needless to say, I was pretty anxious about the whole thing.
But somehow I expected that I would recover much sooner. After all, I was highly motivated to do absolutely everything my doctor told me to do. And, I knew that I would work very hard in physical therapy—which I did. So after 8 months I was disappointed. Why wasn’t I all better?
When I went back to my surgeon, he looked me in the eye, didn’t blink, and stated, “I told you it was going to be a year long process. That is what I meant — not 8 months or 10 months!” Indeed, it did take a year before I felt that I could walk normally.
Our expectations color a great deal of life’s experience. Expect to pay $25,000 for a car, and discovering the price is 23K, makes you feel like you got a deal! But if you expected to pay 21K and the price is 23K, you’re upset. The price is still $23,000 in both cases---but how you feel is different.
There are so many dimensions of life where our expectations, and whether they are met, impact our experience. Suppose you expect your kids to get A’s in school and they get B’s---you will probably feel disappointed. And imagine if you think a C is a fine grade…B’s look great! The list extends into every facet of our lives.
So, common sense might suggest you lower your expectations if you don’t want to be disappointed in yourself or others. But Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, notes that we should separate out our expectations of ourselves and expectations of events that are outside of our control. She notes “having low expectations for yourself is a recipe for feeling good about yourself at any particular moment, but not for getting anywhere.” In other words, if you shoot too low—you may not get very far. Shoot too high, and maybe you will feel bad about yourself. Frequently when an adult’s expectations are not met, they feel that somehow they aren’t good enough.
Expectations of life fit into three broad categories—expectations of oneself, expectations of others, and expectation of life’s experiences. So how do you develop realistic expectations?
- Let go of expectations about how you will experience life. Everyone hopes that the weather will be sunny and warm on their yearly vacation. They anticipate having a great time. But supposing it rains everyday! Now you are both getting wet and you are disappointed too. Of course, we hope that every day will be sunny—but don’t let your desires impact your experience. Accept things as they are, and make the best of them. To a large degree, we experience suffering when reality doesn’t line up with our wishes.
- Establish realistic expectations of others. Wow, I wish I had an easy recipe for how to do this. More often, life experience helps us set the bar at the “right” place. Realize that we are all human, and there are many reasons why we, and others, can’t reach as high as we would like. Try to accept your loved ones for who they are—celebrating their strengths and accepting their limitations.
- Reach high for yourself. Don’t settle for too little—and cultivate a strong intention to arrive at your chosen destination. After my foot surgery, I wanted to be able to return to my practice of Aikido (a martial art). I never asked my doctor if it was a good idea. I knew that I would be able to do it despite whatever barriers I would meet. It was very hard, at times painful, and there were setbacks. But after a year and half of recovery, I was back on the mat…Just where I wanted to be.
Share your experiences!