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We create expectations constantly, both consciously and unconsciously. Even when you are determined to not create expectations, you have inherited a brain that conserves energy by making predictions about the future based on your experience in the past. It is worth striving to notice your expectations and respond with an understanding of the deeper purpose behind the built-in mechanism. Our struggle with expectations resides in our misunderstanding and attachment. When we come up against an unmet expectation, there can be disappointment, or sometimes relief - if you were expecting something "worse" than what reality handed you. To be disappointed every time your predictions do not match reality is a sure-fire way to live with more stress than necessary. Expectations are unavoidable, but our reaction to unmet expectations can be the difference between a life of happiness versus a life as a cynic.
As the brilliantly creative William Shakespeare said, "Expectation is the root of all heartache." Although Shakespeare coined the phrase, I heard it first from the brilliantly creative Andrew Obrecht. The simple and powerful message warns us to be mindful to not create expectations we cannot commit to, and to not attach to expectations that are outside our control.
As is the case with most concepts of behavioral psychology, there is a spectrum with extremes on either end and exploration down the middle. Naturally, it is not healthy to live with our mind so focused on the future that we are in a constant state of creating expectations that we attach to as if they are a sure-thing. Inversely, it is equally unhealthy - and impossible - to strive for no expectations whatsoever. What does that balance look like? What makes it so difficult to notice our expectations, ground them in reality, and then let them go when they have become limiting?
As mammals, we have inherited a brain that determines what is good or bad for survival based on which chemicals spurt in our brain. Dopamine, our reward system, spurts when our brain makes steps towards something that has been determined as good for our survival, as well as when we make correct predictions about our surroundings. When the rewards you predict are fewer or are lower than what you expected, your body perceives this as a threat to survival and releases Cortisol (aka the stress hormone) to alert you to do something about it. When your expectations are exceeded, you receive a big dump of dopamine, furthering your motivation to continue upwards and onward.
Dopamine feels like motivation for action. It signals to your brain and body to go all in, release the reserve tank, and take the reward that is within sight. If you had this good feeling all the time, you would be depleted and unable to act when the time called for it. That's what I love about being a motivator at yyc cycle. My job is to motivate the bikergang to empty their tank in pursuit of the reward of pride, connection, and accomplishment throughout and at the end of class. To me, one of the most satisfying and rewarding jobs I have.
Our relationship with dopamine can cause some confusion. For example, you may expect a donut to taste delicious. Perhaps you haven't had a donut in a few weeks and you decide today's the day to treat yourself. The first bite you take is absolutely wonderful. Not only do you get a sugar rush, you are flooded with dopamine because the donut tastes even better than you expected. The next day, still buzzing from your re-acquaintance with the donut shop, you head there on your lunch break again. Your expectation of the donut has produced a high-bar in your mind. You order the same donut, expecting the same sensation, and are quickly disappointed. The donut is still delicious, there's still a sugar rush, but we are not meant to get the same surge of happy chemical by engaging in the same activity. Our brain evolved for novelty.
This quirky system ends up making us feel bad when we are on the quest to feel good. And when we feel bad, we are pained with the idea that we need something to fix the situation. You can see how we can end up creating backwards feedback loops, thinking that sugar (or a donut specifically) is the answer to what will make us feel better. And even after the donut doesn't serve its purpose, or we eat too many donuts, we are left with the need for relief. Our system searches for ways to feel good and we find ourselves wanting more donuts.
Loretta Breuning articulates this beautifully, in her new book The Science of Positivity,
"To the mammal brain, anything that relieves cortisol promotes survival. So if a cigarette relieved your anxiety one day, your mammal brain “learned” that cigarettes promote survival. If pizza relieved a sense of threat in your youth, your mammal brain learned that pizza promotes survival. If cynicism helps you experience cortisol relief, your brain learns to see it as a lifesaver. No one thinks this in words, of course. But in a moment when your cortisol surges and you look for a way to make it stop, your brain relies on the neural circuits it has."
This feedback loop can happen with any activity that you have used to curb bad feelings in the past. Let's say you chose to go for a run on a day that you were really struggling with high amounts of cortisol in your body. You were pained with that "do something" feeling, and you chose to lace up your shoes and run. The happy chemicals that flowed from moving your body, working up a sweat, and from feeling proud for making such a healthy choice, begins to create a neural pathway that will urge you to go for a run next time you feel stressed. You see? You can create healthy habits by simply understanding the cause and effect of the chemicals flowing through your body.
There are two phrases I keep coming back to as my reminder to notice my expectations, ground them in reality, and be mindful of my attachment to them. They are "Intimacy without Attachment" and "Expect the Unexpected."
Intimacy without Attachment
There is nourishment in things as long as you do not become attached. Even air becomes toxic if you hold it in without the constant letting go with the exhale. What I love about this phrase is that with Intimacy we have a deep connection or relationship but without Attachment, or without the idea that we are incomplete without whatever we have become attached to. Set big goals, strive for excellence, and get excited about future plans, but let go of the idea that things must go a certain way in order for you to get the rewards or happiness that you seek. Attachment is a form of fear or dependency. Do not look outside of yourself to fill your emptiness, that is an inside job. Seek to elevate your surroundings by embracing who you are without everything else.
We waste so much energy by allowing ourselves to get disturbed by our unmet expectations or our attachments to things that we do not have control over. You will still get bothered, sometimes annoyed, and you will notice you get attached to ideas, things, or people as life continues on. The key is to witness this and then let it go.
In the book The Fear Cure, by Lissa Rankin, she tells us that most emotions will last approximately 90 seconds if you let them flow through you. It is our denial, resistance, or unrealistic expectation that we can be happy all the time that creates the lasting struggle.
Next time you notice yourself getting wound up over an attachment to an idea, thing, or person, ask yourself, "is this worth my energy?" You cannot control the outcome, you can only control your effort.
Expect the Unexpected
We are hardwired to make predictions about our future. We conserve a lot of energy by filling in blanks based on our unique experience and beliefs about the way the world works. While uncertainty can feel dangerous, it is something that comes with the territory of being alive.
Knowing that we get a boost of dopamine when we are correct in our predictions of the future, I find it best to remind myself to expect the unexpected. I can spend time and energy thinking through all the possible outcomes - and perhaps there are some situations that do call for a thorough analysis of future scenarios - but more often than not, when I choose to trust my strength and let life be a wild ride, I have way more energy ready to be used. In the end, reality is generally the middle path between our worst possible and best possible outcome predictions. If you are able to tap into trust, effort, and a growth mindset, suddenly failure becomes a beautiful opportunity to learn and grow, and not something to be avoided at all costs. We can save a lot of energy for being in action when we are able to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. When we expect the unexpected, we train ourselves to adapt and flow with the waves of life. Trust that you can handle what is thrown your way, and work more on being a dance partner with life versus trying to predict and control the unforeseeable.
Yes, unmet expectations can cause heartache. But what is life without a little heartache? Sometimes our unmet expectations are a signal that we are not getting what we need from a relationship, but generally, I would say, we each need to practice not being the center of the universe. I still create expectations, but I am mindful to not blame others or get all torn up when my version of the future doesn't match reality. I still get a little perturbed when I expect to be taken out for dinner but I come home to a tired husband who wants a night in. But I ask myself, "Is this worth spending energy on?" Although I still get caught in expectations, I snap myself out of their hold pretty quickly when I notice my energy has shifted into a place of unnecessary negativity.
Strive for the life that you would be devastated to not create. Trust your strength and resilience to handle the disappointment of bumps and bruises along the way. Ground your expectations in reality and remind yourself that although you can control your effort and passion, there are more factors that are beyond your control. So expect the unexpected. Dance with the balance between striving for more and being content and grateful with what is now. Life isn't supposed to be easy, but damn, even heartache opens up possibility for earth-shattering growth and happiness. Expect greatness, and know there are countless paths to take you there.