Change Your Expectations – Change Your Life

Feb 9, 2024

Expectations vs. Life. . .

Life sucks. . .

Okay. . . not ALL the time.

But there are certainly occasions when things don’t work out the way you want them, and that’s never a nice feeling.

It might be something small, like realizing your flat-mate drank that ice cold Coke you’d left in the fridge.

Or perhaps something more major, say a holiday being canceled.

Whatever it is, it’s an expectation and one way or another you’re invested in it.

And THAT’S the problem.

In this post, we’ll explore how managing our expectations and embracing the concept of letting go can lead to a more fulfilling (and much less stressful) life.

Expect the Unexpected. . .

When we want certain things to happen we often invest massive amounts of energy into them. 

The bigger the expectation the bigger the investment.

But there are no guarantees.

About anything.

It’s important to remember that an expectation is just that: It’s just something we EXPECT to happen, not something that definitely WILL happen.

However, because we crave the feeling we know we’ll get when it does, we fool ourselves into ignoring the fact that it MIGHT NOT. 

When put the blinkers on and charge ahead full steam throwing everything we’ve got into the idea that our expectation will (will, WILL!) materialize just the way we want it (with cherries on top), we set ourselves up for potential suffering.

The Expectation Equation

When an expectation doesn’t work out, there’s always suffering — it’s just a question of how much.

The basic equation is this:

The extent to which we ignore the fact it might not happen + The amount of joy we’ve already banked on getting when it DOES happen = How much we suffer when it DOESN’T happen

You probably know the idiom “The bigger they are the harder they fall”.

We can say something very similar in relation to expectations:

 “The bigger the expectation, the harder it will be to deal with if it doesn’t happen.”

The question, then, is How can we suffer less because of our expectations?

Well, the simple answer is: Understand and accept that people and the world itself won’t always live up to your expectations, regardless of how agreeable you think they are. 

After all, you can’t control the universe and you can’t always control other people.

Most of us have problems controlling ourselves much of the time. . .

Boy holding a huge bag with the word 'expectations' written on it

The Art of Letting Go

Perhaps it’s just my English upbringing, but I’ve always been a stickler for punctuality. 

I guess that’s okay — a good thing, really. 

I also like to have my desk well arranged at work and know very clearly what my timetable is each day.

Again, no problem: I’m a teacher, so I need to make sure I’m turning up on time and doing what I need to do when I need to do it. (And there’s nothing wrong with being organized, right?)

But up until a few years ago, I used to take organization to a whole new level.

I had what I would describe as a mild obsession with knowing exactly what was happening at what time throughout the day, even on weekends and holidays; I liked to know precisely what the plan was for each day, along with the timings.

It drove Sitang mad. (Which is no surprise.)

Thankfully, that behavior very quickly and completely disintegrated a few days after I was ordained as a monk in the Thai forest tradition. 

Why? Two reasons:

  1. Because I had absolutely no control at all over what was happening day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute.
  1. No-one except the master monk had any idea what was happening next — and often he didn’t know what was coming next either! 

There were so many occasions that things suddenly happened at the strangest of times and often with zero notice. (But those are stories for another time. . .)

As monks, we were forced to live in the present moment.

Which meant no planning.

Which meant no expectations.

Which meant no sense of sadness, injustice or loss when things didn’t happen.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:

“Yeah, yeah, okay, I get it that Buddhist monks can live moment to moment, but what about me and my life and my job? I have to think things through and plan in advance otherwise I’ll get fired. . . or divorced. . . or both. And what’s wrong with looking forward to a night out with family or friends?”

The answer is: Nothing’s wrong with planning things that need to be planned or looking forward to an activity or event. 

Just think about how you’ll feel if it doesn’t happen.  

How easily will you be able to just let go and move on into the next moment without feeling sad or frustrated or cheated?

‘Dai Arai Gor Dai’

Letting go isn’t the same thing as giving up.

It’s about releasing our grip on the things we can’t control.

It’s about accepting that life is completely unpredictable AND being okay whether something happens or not.

My master used to say, in Thai: “Dai arai gor dai; mai dai arai gor dai” (“ได้อะไรก็ได้ ไม่ได้อะไรก็ได้”), which basically means: “Whatever happens, fine; whatever doesn’t happen, fine.”

That’s an easy theory to nod along to, but a very difficult practice to follow through on authentically.

It’s especially difficult when you’ve invested a huge amount of energy into ‘knowing’ whatever it is you want to happen WILL happen, and also enjoyed marinating your mind in the happiness you’ll get from it when it does. . .

So, whatever the expectation is, remember the Expectation Equation.

Tips for Embracing the Art of Letting Go

Okay, so here are some simple tips for embracing The Art of Letting Go:

Practice Mindfulness

Be present in the moment.

If you’ve just learnt that something you expected to happen isn’t going to, try and be present enough to be mindful of how your mind is reacting.

Try to step back and observe its natural response without getting caught up in the mind’s drama.

Watching the mind in its natural state is the only way to truly learn about your mind — and about yourself.

Real self-development can only begin with enough understanding of where you are starting from.

And everything starts in the mind.

Adjust Expectations

Instead of pinning your hopes too highly on something, keep in the back of your mind the idea that whatever it is might NOT happen.

Think about how you will react if it doesn’t.

That doesn’t mean you have to cook up a plan b just in case (because that might not happen either!).

Just try and prepare the mind to let go if it has to.

At some point, the mind WILL have to let it go, so try and let it go as quickly as you can.

Dai arai gor dai; mai dai arai gor dai. . .

Whatever happens, fine; whatever doesn’t happen, fine. . .

Acknowledge. Accept. Move on.

Focus on What You Can Control

Concentrate on the aspects of life that you DO have more control over — your own mind is the obvious one; your health is another.

When it comes to things like relationships, it’s extremely hard to control other people’s behaviors, so most who try end up failing.

(And if you’re in a relationship where you feel you HAVE to control the other person’s behavior, why are you still IN that relationship anyway?)

Whether your in a personal or professional situation, choosing to focus on what’s within your control enhances your ability to manage challenges and changes more effectively.

Basically, it’s a MUCH wiser way to live our lives.

Learn and Bounce Back from Setbacks

This is an extremely important one.

Every disappointment is an opportunity to learn and grow.

So, instead of wallowing in self-pity or becoming angry or resentful, look at ‘setbacks’ as stepping stones toward personal development and increasing resilience.

Every challenge gives us a chance to evolve and expand our understanding of the realities of this life and of our own mind.

It all depends on our perspective. . .

Someone standing on the edge of a cliff releasing balloons

Building a New Behavior

Having expectations is natural, it’s a part of life.

From a very young age — from when we are babies, even — we’re taught to crave things and enjoy the rewards when we get them. 

But we’re rarely taught anything about letting go when things don’t go to plan.

In the modern era where there’s so much emphasis placed on attaining material things and building expectations sky high, it’s no wonder there are so many mental health issues. 

The art of letting go is one of the keys to finding peace and happiness.

And it can be learnt.

However, the only way to really do so is through experience.

 

Most things worth knowing are hard to learn, so you can’t expect that you’ll suddenly be able to let everything go immediately and be instantly calm and content regardless. It will take time. And it will be painful at times, too. 

One way to get used to dealing with big expectations biting the dust is to practice with smaller ones.

For example:

  • You plan to have a picnic, but it rains.

Instead of being disappointed, let go right away and have an indoor picnic at home instead.

  • You expect an ‘important’ text back right away, but there’s no reply.

Instead of feeling ignored, let go right away and use the time to do something you enjoy.

  • You hope to find your favorite snack at the store, but it’s sold out.

Instead of getting upset, let go right away and try a new snack, or choose something else you like.

These may seem like simple instances.

They are. 

But if you practice letting go quickly of the smaller issues like these you’ll build a new behavior. 

And it’s that ingrained behavior that makes it easier to deal with the big ones when they arrive. 

Change Your Behavior, Change Your Life

By acknowledging our expectations as EXPECTations, by understanding the impact of our reactions to unmet expectations, and by embracing the art of letting go when things don’t go according to plan, we can navigate life’s uncertainties with wisdom, grace and optimism. 

Letting go doesn’t mean giving up on having fun.

It means giving up on creating the stress and sadness that comes from trying to control things that are out of our control. 

Dai arai gor dai; mai dai arai gor dai.

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