It’s helpful to think of our minds having both a zoomed-out, macroscopic setting, and a zoomed-in, micro setting. Mindset comprises our macro view of the world, the future, and what’s to come, and in a previous post I talked about the power of an optimistic mindset. This post will look at the more zoomed-in setting, our expectations.
While a generally optimistic mindset serves us well in many ways, our expectations about upcoming events can calcify into a kind of playbook about how things should be, creating frustration, disappointment, and what Byron Katie calls “arguing with reality.” Our expectations, if set too high and too rigidly, front-load pressure into our experience of anything, especially those events we’ve deemed to be positive, special or fun.
Have you ever noticed that it’s often harder to be your best self with the people you most adore? Have you noticed a certain tension or strain when you’re finally in the situations you’ve anticipated and looked forward to? Holidays, birthdays, family gatherings, vacations. There is a fine line between the pleasure of anticipating these cherished events and the tendency to write a playbook for How This Should Feel and How Everything Should Go. And of course: How Everyone Should Behave. The latter is an especially powerful tool, called a Manual, that deserves a post of its own: stay tuned for my post on the Manuals we write for our loved ones.
Whether you’re grinding it out on a typical Tuesday workday or experiencing a bucket-list moment you’ve saved and planned for – what’s for certain is you will be having a human experience. Human experiences will contain a mix of positive and negative emotions. You will bring your imperfect humanness to it, and the other humans sharing this experience will bring their humanness to it as well.
When our kids were younger, Himself and I learned over time that the phrase “as a family” should be banished from our planning vocabulary. When we talked of going out for ice cream “as a family” or playing a board game by the fire “as a family” – that very phrase infused a subtle but powerful pressure into the activity. We were no longer only eating ice cream or playing Monopoly; if it had been designated an “As a Family” activity, there was this unspoken presumption about how much we were supposed to be bonding and enjoying each other’s company. Our kids, of course, didn’t get the memo, and carried on as usual: sometimes enjoying themselves, sometimes being miserable. I think they may have felt the pressure, because often when the expectations were high, there were more meltdowns, more parental snapping at them and/or at each other…it wasn’t pretty. This pressure was even worse when we had saved up for the big vacation: how dare anyone be in a bad mood when we were hemorrhaging roughly $100 an hour so that we could have The Time of Our Lives?
Expectations are powerful, and they are, in fact, just thoughts; stories we are telling ourselves. These stories have the power to enrich or to poison any experience. What is the story you’re telling yourself about how things should be as you anticipate the coming day, weekend, or season? Are there places where your expectations are amplifying pressure, and how might you loosen that valve?
As you plan and look forward to this summer’s events – the holiday gatherings or the family vacations or even just a typical workday — the tool I offer you is this: Let your expectations be gentle. Gentle expectations are not low expectations. This is not, “Let me predict the ways this could end up being a disaster.” That thinking sends our brain into primitive, protective mode, hunting for evidence.
Gentle expectations are held loosely. Gentle expectations allow for the mixture of positive and negative emotions in any situation. Paradoxically, when we allow for the negative, we are more open to the positive when it comes around. When we are preoccupied by a narrative about how things should be, we miss out on what is.
Gentle expectations allow things to be what they are and the people you love to be who they are – because they will. Your two-year-old will be a two-year-old. The weather will be less than cooperative. That lunch at the restaurant you read about may not end up being the best you ever had. Much of your experience will not, in fact, resemble what’s documented in your friends’ Facebook and Instagram posts. You’ll get tired, angry, hungry, ill-tempered…in short, you’ll be human, even if you happen to be in a place that advertised itself as Paradise.
Let yourself be human anyway. Meet all of it – your own humanness and that of others, and the unpredictable messiness of this human experience – with openness, compassion, flexibility. No matter what we plan and anticipate, so much of this life is out of our control. Our expectations are in fact a tool that we can control, that we can calibrate. Let your gentle expectations be a kind of raft that allows you to ride the waves of whatever life brings.