Expectations – both the Source of Great Joy and Deep Sadness

by Paul Goodchild on August 4, 2014

Ever wondered why you feel the way you do?

Why did something that happened yesterday upset you so much? After looking back on past event within the greater context of our lives, we often realise it wasn’t such a big deal anyway.

But why do we get so upset at the time? What causes us so much grief, and can we actually avoid it?

This swinging back and forth between happiness and hurt lies in how we build-up our imagined future in our heads – that is, how exactly do we describing what should happen?

Are you aware of when and how you define what should happen, and if so, are you also actively thinking about what it means if it doesn’t turn out the way you hope?

Where Does Our Power To Control Lie?

Here’s a question: What time did you wake up this morning?

Did you decide on that? That is, did you set the alarm for a certain time, or did you opt to lie-in until you could be bothered getting up?

Another question: Is it raining or is it sunny?

Did you decide that?

That’s a bit of a silly question, but it’s one we get wrong all the time.

The point here is that there are 2 types of events in our lives

  1. events that are within our control
  2. events that are not within our control

Looking at the 2 questions I asked, it should be obvious within which categories these 2 questions fall.

For each significant event in your life, ask which category it is – is it within your power to control and or outside of it.

For the rest of this article, I’m only going to discuss those events that are not within your power to control.

Expectations – our greatest weakness

The problem with expectations is that invariably they’re ridiculous. They’re completely unrealistic and are based on a set of rules and values you have stored away in your head.

No-one else knows your little sets of values, but you put them into effect every time you talk to someone, take action, form an opinion, and set expectations.

Your values drive you.

They determine how you think, and dictate what you do.  With them you form opinions and make judgements about everything.

This is normal.

Unfortunately what is also quite normal, is that we think our values are shared with everybody else; that everyone sees the world the way we see it.

That’s silly! Of course you don’t really think that… right?

We create expectations of other people that are aligned with our rules, and fit with our values.

We often expect people, and events, to create a particular outcome. We do this completely automatically, every moment of every day.

The worst part is that we base our happiness and contentment on the fulfilment of these expectations.

And this is bad for us, just like the question about the weather I asked earlier – the outcome of events and the behaviour of these people are outside of our control.

Thus, your emotions become enslaved to results that you cannot influence.

Trivial example: imagine you’re feeling down. You think, “I know, I’ll call my friend and we’ll hang out. I’ll share with them what’s troubling me and I know I’ll feel good about it as I always do, and perhaps they’ll offer me some guidance.”

So you call your friend. They’re busy and they don’t answer you. “WHY aren’t they answering you?!” So now you’re already annoyed – you expected to call your friend and they’d answer you.

But they call you back a little later and now you’re back on track.  You offer them to meet up, but they can’t. They’ve already made plans.  They’re just about to get ready to go out and they don’t have time to talk on the phone to just now.

Now you’re really upset. Not only were you feeling down before you called your friend, you’re friend can’t meet you as you’d expected, and they don’t even have time for you so you can share your problem. You feel even worse than you did.

But nothing has changed.

Your circumstances are exactly the same as they were before you even had the idea to call your friend.

But you feel much worse.

Why?  You created, in this case, a series of expectations about how you were going to fix the problem, who you were going to call, that that person would be available, that you’d meet them, you’d talk, and they’d make you feel better.

That’s a lot of expectations, and this is just 1 trivial example.

And this is typical of what we do all the time – we load up a bunch things that we imagine to happen and also how we’ll feel at the end of it.

When it doesn’t go the way we’d planned we get massively disappointed.

How To Avoid Expectations – Recognise Your Needs

From what I’ve said so far, you’d think I was saying you should reverse your approach to expectations and instead of looking for good things to happen the way you want, you should now assume it’ll all turn out shite – you can’t rely on people anyway, and life sucks as nothing ever goes right!

In this way, any time something goes well, you’ll be delighted!

No, that also doesn’t work, because you’ll feel miserable as you imagine and assume nothing will work out for you.

So what to do? Think positive, or wallow in the negative that hasn’t happened yet?


The first step here is to become aware of the expectations you’re creating either on yourself, other people, or other events.

You can’t fight the pain that comes from disappointment of expectations if you’re not even aware of what expectations you’re setting.

Once you’ve listed out your expectations, you need to be really clear about two things:

  • ( 1 ) Are they realistic – are they based on past experiences that have happened and you at least have a frame of reference for expecting this?
  • ( 2 ) Why are you expecting these things – what is it you need, and why do you need it from here?

#2 here is really important. If you realise that you’re setting up certain expectations about someone or something, is it because you need the outcome you’re hoping for.

What needs are you having fulfilled here and if you can identify these, perhaps there are other ways to also have them met. Set yourself up for success and try to see if there are other people, or other possible events or activities that would help you reach the place you want to be.

Perhaps you’re feeling lonely, and you start to place importance on one or two key people in your life to meet your needs of companionship.  But is it realistic to demand and expect those key people to fulfill that need for you?

Are there other avenues you can explore to meet that need?

Taking a bit of time to identify your expectations will greatly reduce the impact on you when they’re not met.

Hope – Our Greatest Strength

It’s easy to get ‘Hope’ and ‘Expectation’ confused. They sound the same, but they’re nothing alike.

We need hope. We cannot live without it.

When all hope is lost, we are lost.

Expectations create a direct link between how we will feel and the outcome of an event – we can define this link consciously, or let it happen automatically.

Hope, however, is where we believe that something is possible. We move forward in the knowledge that perhaps it isn’t, and we are aware that it possibly things wont turn out for the best. But, we are prepared for it, and we’ll do our utmost – i.e. whatever is within our own control – to see that it turns out how we’d want it to.

While we can be disappointed, of course, when something doesn’t go as we’d hoped, our feelings are measured through our awareness and previously setting clear, realistic expectations.

Hope lends us our stamina to maintain the course even though it’s hard, and seems there is no point.

The lesson to learn here:

Choose your expectations so that they serve you and provide you with options, and throughout, recognise that you always have that the power to choose them, but never loose the hope that you will succeed in attaining that which you desire.

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