We can only be disappointed, shocked or delightedly surprised if we were expecting something else.
When people disappoint themselves or are disappointed by others, we can ask: What exactly was the expectation? The answer tells us how the person feels their life ought to be or how they think things should go.
My daughter was once dating a young man who found his life to be overwhelmingly stressful. First, he lost his apartment, then he quit his job over bad management. Luckily, he got a new job quite quickly but lost it when he sprained his ankle badly within the first week. He bought a used car to give him more job options but the engine blew up within two weeks. Now he can’t sleep and is in a cycle of anger and disappointment.
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These kinds of events can make even the most lighthearted start to feel life is conspiring against us. As each event stacks up, it can lead to a lot of self-doubt, insecurity and volatile mood swings.
If we could step back a bit, relax our expectations, and see that these are stand-alone events and not personal attacks, it would be better for our psyche (not to mention our relationships with the people around us).
One weekend during a party (for those of you who can’t remember what that is, a party is a social gathering of invited guests, typically involving eating, drinking, and entertainment), our group of friends had fun discussing the perfectionistic tendencies within couples. Some reported that one or the other was a “dishwasher control freak” and even laughed about how their children toy with them by rearranging the dishes in the dishwasher after they’ve so carefully loaded it. For others, it was the need for a pristine kitchen floor. Still others argued the benefits of no items on countertops – ever!
When things are going great, it’s easy to laugh at our control issues and choices. However, when one is experiencing what feels like a relentless list of disappointments, that cheery outlook can turn dark quickly.
Knowing where your locus of influence lies can be helpful, but not necessarily easy to achieve. It will take some work to learn to relax and reflect on your expectations.
Humans love simple causes for stuff. And if that obvious cause doesn’t immediately manifest, we get creative. We get the imagination involved, we make stuff up and we believe that made-up story is true.
Someone hasn’t texted back and it’s been all of 30 seconds? I don’t know why they haven’t texted back, so I make up a reason (“I’ve upset them!”) and I believe my fantasy. Of course, the fantasy might be right. But it also might not be. I need to read reality, not just reference my own imaginings.
If you’re going to put your imagination to work, it would be more useful to imagine relaxing about not knowing. Imagine being able to hold an empty meaning space in your mind until real information fills that space. Resist filling the gap with negative imaginings.
“I don’t know why my co-worker seemed to snub me. Maybe they’re distracted by worries, maybe they’re tired, maybe they’re angry with someone else or at themselves, or … or maybe I don’t need to know right now because I don’t have enough information.”
The first step is generating other possible factors that don’t necessarily have to do with you at all.
To relax about uncertainty, we need to relax in general.
It’s amazing what people feel they can or should be able to control, and also what they can’t possibly influence. Getting these assumptions wrong has major effects on our lives.
For example, some people think they are 100 per cent responsible for whether someone else is happy. One client of mine organized a picnic for her family on a day the forecast was good. But it rained. She still ruminated about her “stupidity” years later. Apparently, she was to blame for the weather.
Troublesome thoughts tend to come from troublesome feelings. So work on relaxing your expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised by the more positive outcomes – or at least your view of the event.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.
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