Expectations tend to be a key part of the human experience and it is easy to forget that they are just stories that we tell ourselves in our heads.
There’s likely been a time in your life when some experience has fallen short of your expectations, which resulted in a sort of veil of disappointment shrouded around it – even if the experience wasn’t actually that bad.
One time I was so excited to try this new burger place in town that loads of my friends had been talking about. When I got there, I had a decent burger and chips but I just didn’t get the hype. I had high expectations and when the food fell short of them, I was left a little disappointed. Somehow a little disappointed even though I had just eaten a burger and chips.
On the flip side, there has likely been a time in your life when you had really low or no expectations for some event and it turned out to be incredible. Maybe it was when you were dragged into some low-key social event that ended up being one of the best nights of your life, or if you tried out a new hobby and it turned out to be your true calling. Taking the burger example from before, if I had gone there expecting the food to be terrible, then I would have been overjoyed at the ‘decent’ burger.
What is crazy is that in both instances, the burgers are the same. There’s still the bun, the beef, the cheese. These things don’t change. Yet depending on your expectations and the story in your head, your whole perception of reality can be changed. The person who absolutely loves the burger and the person who is disappointed with the burger taste the same burger. It is just their stories that make their realities different.
The experiences are objective. It is the expectations that create stories and make reality subjective.
Expectations outside of burgers
It is important to recognise that expectations are an inevitable part of being a human being, but it is also true that they can be managed and even eliminated in certain circumstances.
There is a Chinese axiom which states that our cups (minds) are overflowing with concepts which limit our experience of life. Stories of our past, present and future that we tell ourselves again and again. How things should be, how things should have been, how things ought to be in the future.
You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.
When you are learning or trying something new such as a new sport or art, you automatically begin with an empty cup. It can be intimidating to begin with but it is by far the best way to learn and grow. Yet we have been playing this game of life for so long that our cups are filled with stories and expectations. Most of them aren’t even true or useful but we cling to them anyway because it’s reassuring to think we know what is going on.
The worlds in which we inhabit, both internally and externally, are far too complex for a big blob of jelly in our head to fully understand. That is why we have stories and expectations to help give us a map and compass as we navigate through this crazy thing.
The only issue is that there is no real map or compass for this. The places that we have been and the places that we’re going have been drawn on and created by ourselves.
Every single thing that we have ever experienced or ever will experience comes through our own personal lens and is influenced by things like expectations, stories and interpretations.
So what is the solution?
I think that it has to be becoming empty vessels and just letting life be without having to control or understand or interpret every minor detail.
You can choose to have high or low expectations for the next meal you eat. Or you can just eat it and notice all of the tastes.
You can choose to have high or low expectations for the next social event you attend. Or you can just go there and embrace every moment as it comes.
You can judge yourself for the next time you doubt yourself and tell yourself the (false) story that you aren’t a confident person and never will be. Or you can just watch the doubt come and go, just like every other emotion that you have ever experienced, without trying to attach some meaning or story to it.
I have found that true peace and contentment comes from the release of expectations.
It comes from simply being the observer of experiences rather than trying to play the judger or controller of them.
Remember that expectations are just stories. And they can be changed or completely erased.
As Tony Fahkry puts it:
Surrender the need to control life’s outcomes, for trying to control life is like clutching at water with your hands open.