On Expectations, and How They Can Thwart You

Do expectations help or hinder your progress? Can a Buddhist perspective help answer this question?

We all encounter disappointment and defeat in the journey we take to meet life’s challenges.  Things don’t always go as planned.  Small disappointments come our way each and every day; we often don’t even notice them and just roll with the punches. 

In the throes of depression or illness though, even a small letdown can start to feel overwhelming.  For example, I felt terrible a few months ago when my son postponed visiting me.  What’s the big deal?  He just came a few weeks later.  Why was I crushed when that happened?  Why did I tell myself that I didn’t “deserve” a visit from him, that I was too boring or limiting?  When he finally came we had a great time together, and he went back to college as planned.  His visit, though wonderful, didn’t seem to have the exact effect I was hoping for — a feeling of being energized, of being somehow able to muster my forces and do more, a feeling of being able to get better faster.  As I dropped him off at the train station I felt sad and disappointed, almost deprived!  

In trying to sort this out with friends (or my therapist), I was often gently reminded that I had “unrealistic expectations.”  Of course I understand this on a rational basis, but then again I wasn’t expecting miracles.  I’ve lived with depression for decades, and know that a visit from a loved one won't come close to that.  I began to defend myself by telling them I didn’t really expect a miracle, I just intended his visit to boost me up.  I saw lifting my mood as an intention, yes, I was affirming this outcome.  I began to get angry about this “expectation” nonsense.  Was I sabotaging myself by simply expecting something good?   Was I setting myself up for disappointment without even realizing it?  Was this behavior part of why I remain depressed, no matter how hard I tried to get better?  Why is this "unrealistic"?

In typical fashion, I turned to the words themselves for help.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines expectation as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case”, as well as “a belief that someone will or should achieve something”.  Expect is derived from the Latin exspectare, ‘look out for”, which in turn is the combination of ex ‘out’ plus spectare ‘to look’.  Yes, I looked for my son’s visit, or my ongoing exercise program, or attending a local concert with a friend, to all boost my spirits up a bit.  To me, these were essential tools for healing and improvement.  Why shouldn’t I expect them to do the trick?  If I put the work in, I should be allowed that little bit of hope. I suppose a sense of belief was operating, even if unconsciously.

An intention, on the other hand, is an aim, or plan. To intend is to "plan that something should be".  Its etymology is the Latin intendere, a combination of in – ‘towards’ plus tendere ‘stretch, tend’. Here it is – the plan.  Don't most of us start our day with “good intentions”?  You are making a 'stretch', if you will, toward the goal.  The sense of surety is missing.  It seems more like a dream to enjoy if we achieve it, knowing we can go on our merry way if we don’t.  I thought I was intending things to happen for me, but I suppose that deep down inside I was expecting them.  Maybe my friends were right.  Maybe the expectations had become beliefs, and weren't really part of an improvement plan.  Maybe I was setting myself up for disappointment when the outcome was not what I wanted.

I found the graphic for this blog on a Buddhist website, www.what-buddha-said.net.  It discusses the Four Noble Truths, the basis of Buddhist teachings. These Truths state that expectations are basically cravings, which cause human suffering, or dukkha.  On the surface, this makes sense to me.  And how do we extinguish dukkha?  Buddhists try to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes, among other things, right intention (thought), right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Whew!  I'm exhausted just thinking about this!  But there it is right from the Buddha’s mouth — intention.  Keep stretching and working toward the goal, stick to the plan.  Try not to expect the result that you want, since if you  don’t get it, your dukkha worsens!

And affirm?  The origin is ad – ‘to’ plus firmus ‘strong’.  It means to “state emphatically or publically”, to uphold, to defend.  Everybody knows I want to get better, I’ve said it a million times.  And I had to be strong to make is this far, that seems to be in my very DNA.  It looks like I can use this word with impunity.

Expectations can still be valuable, though.  Believing does generate hope, and without hope the motivation you need to fulfil your dreams can be stifled.  So I think I'll keep it in my vocabulary, but use it more selectively.  I'll take the advice I found in a quote by Robert E. Speer:  " ... Prepare for the worst, expect the best, and take what comes."

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Alicia Yost May 29, 2012 at 05:48 PM
I think that expectations are a symptom of a much deeper problem that most of us face: entitlement. We live in a society that brainwashes us to think we are entitled to so much: a house, a car, a good job, respect, love, happiness. Entitlement sets us up for disappointment. I like this quote by Ram Das: "It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed."
Tom Soudier May 31, 2012 at 06:08 PM
We are all here *now*, firmly in the moment. By embracing the present, we quickly learn to let go of false attachments to past pains, learn that building a future is just a way of deceiving oneself. In this process of embracing life *now* a person can let go enough to actually have a chance to experience the present, where all of life actually resides. Yes, dance from moment to moment.


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