What Do You Expect?!

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

I’ve been thinking about expectations lately, hearing how often a statement that begins, “I expected…” is followed by strong feelings of disappointment or anger or confusion.  Why is that?

We could think of expectations as having decided ahead of time how life, other people or I myself should be, then getting angry, disappointed or resentful when it doesn’t turn out to be that way.  If I’m upset with life or another, I might speak with judgments or blame; if I’m unhappy with myself, I might experience guilt or shame or exasperation.

As with any thoughts that lead to contraction in the body, these thoughts, too, are opportunities to explore what is alive in me at the moment.  Perhaps I’m hoping to change my or others’ behaviors in the future, maybe wanting safety or consideration? Perhaps would love help and support? Or wishing to pay attention and be more present?

In 12-Step programs, there is a saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”  I think what they’re getting at is that expectations lead to anger and separation.  This might not help with relationships at home or at work, and could even lead to serious losses.

I’m reading author Gay Hendricks’ delightful detective series about Tenzing Norbu, a Tibetan Buddhist month turned LAPD robbery & homicide detective turned private investigator.  Throughout his adventures, he uses his spiritual practices to calm anger, fear and confusion.  In his fourth book, The Fourth Rule of Ten, Tenzing posits this rule:  Let Go of Expectations – they always lead to suffering.  And even old bard Shakespeare wrote, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

Talking to friends about these ideas, I asked for examples of when expectations led to suffering.

One friend said she had expected to have healthy, active aging years.  Instead she developed an unfortunate combination of Parkinson’s disease (worsening balance) and serious osteoporosis.  Recently healing from her second broken hip, she was upset and scared about how her next years will go, and felt guilty about how hard her partner was working as caregiver for her – doing all the tasks for both his life and hers. She said that due to her expectations, she never considered the possibility things might be so hard and was not prepared.  This seemed to make the suffering even worse.

In a phone meeting with a colleague, we both had expectations about how long the call would go.  It turned out we had different expectations, and we were both surprised and troubled by the abrupt end of the call.  At our next meeting, we talked about our different ideas of how this call would go and about the time each us of had available at the start of the meeting for shared understanding and clarity.

A silly expectation I have is that I expect to have good reflexes.  Typically if I drop something, I catch it 4 out of 5 times before it hits the ground.  That 1 in 5 times when I miss, I swear a blue streak in irritation and frustration because I expected to catch it.  Sometimes I’m so irritated and tense that I drop the same item a few more times.  Lately, I have begun to laugh instead of swearing.  I pause and notice how my flow was interrupted and take a few slow breaths, appreciating the chance to re-set my rhythm.

This aligns with a suggestion I ran across in Christina Baldwin’s The Seven Whispers, A spiritual Practice for Times Like These:  Surrender to Surprise.  As always, curiosity can be our greatest ally in shifting from the blame world to a world with increased compassion for ourselves and for others.  “Wow!  Look at that.  We sure see things differently about this.  Let’s talk about it and see what each of us cares about here. Maybe one of us will be open to shifting, or maybe we will want to find a completely different solution to address our concerns.”

In relationships, expectations can get quite complicated. We develop a template of what a marriage should be from watching our parents. How our parents treat each other becomes a model hidden inside us for how relationships should be, even when we consciously prefer not to act the same way our parents did. Because these models are very old, we don’t even realize how much they influence our expectations of how things should go. For instance, imagine one person grew up in a family where there were never arguing or raised voices. This person might marry a person who grew up in a loving, loud and sometimes contentious household. The first person, expecting peaceful family relating, might experience the second person’s volatility as painful, even excruciating intensity. The second person might feel confused because they expect engagement and tussling as an expression of caring.

Different expectations don’t have to be this extreme. It might be a difference in how one expects to care for the household or for the children. These differences may feel “normal” to us, but could more accurately be described as familiar.  They can lead to knock down, drag out fights between people who deeply care about each other.

For example, a husband is a nervous driver and likes to move into the lane he will need a few miles ahead of an exit, and he expects similar strategies for comfort and peace of mind from his wife.  She likes to drive more spontaneously, and sometimes nearly misses an exit.  He makes suggestions about lane changes which she experiences as unwanted ‘back-seat driving.’  He is hoping to be able to relax during the drive; she wants respect for her competence and autonomy when she is driving.  She also wants acknowledgement and appreciation that she does most of the driving and is happy to contribute in that way, since he’s pretty nervous behind the wheel.  They’re still exploring possible strategies that will address both their needs.

My mother’s father supported their family and her mom stayed home to care for the children and the house.  Through her own marriage, my mom constantly spoke with disappointment to my dad, whose work life was on-again, off-again.  Later I carried that same expectation into my relationship and used the same disappointed tone of voice with my partner.  I was pretty active in the women’s movement of the 70s, and believed I was committed to equality for women and men.  I wasn’t expecting the man to carry financial responsibility, but I kept repeating my mother’s expectations with my partner.  It would be years before I’d discover NVC and ways to talk about these things compassionately.

Through several life changes, I’ve learned life rarely unfolds as I expected.  I left teaching at a University in Chicago and moved to California to join the carpenters’ union.  I was burned out from 60-hour work weeks.  I just wanted to be left alone and to go beat on wood for a while.  I had not realized that since I was doing a non-traditional job, I would need to respond to many people’s reactions to my choice.  I ended up being highly visible in the union meetings and on the job sites.

So the next time you feel angry, frustrated or confused, you may find it interesting to see whether you had an expectation about how things or people should be.  You may find it is kinder to yourself and to others to think about what each person’s concerns are instead of trying to insist life go the way you think it should.