Having breast-fed our 5 babies, I am no stranger to the let-down reflex, which is the result of a message sent to my brain by baby’s sucking, causing the release of oxytocin, which triggers the flow of milk.
I am also aware or another kind of let-down reflex – the one where I’m completely comfortable and then as soon as I think about weeing, as if from nowhere, my bladder feels full and I need to find a loo….. immediately!
I’ll mention just one more let-down reflex. Imagine rushing home excited to share some brilliant news, but the response you were hoping for is sadly lacking, leaving you feeling a bit deflated; this let-down is called disappointment. The reaction you had expected didn’t materialise, causing a dampening of your own enthusiasm, and over time, repeated disappointments could have a substantially negative impact on your relationship. Ideally, a good course of action would have been to enquire if your ‘disappointer’ has had a frustrating day or some bad news of their own, that has made it practically impossible for them to be buoyant when you shared your news, but instead of this, we often automatically focus on our dashed hopes and unmet needs, causing us to fall, ever so slightly, into the expectation gap.
In his TED Talk ‘Why We’re Unhappy – The Expectation Gap’, Nat Ware explains that our happiness is based around having our expectations met, but when our expectation of reality exceeds our experience of reality, we then encounter the expectation gap and this can lead to unhappiness. Our happiness, says Nat, is determined by our expectations, which are determined by what we consider to be normal....... and what we consider to be normal is largely based upon…….
a)….our imagination of how things should be. When we choose, for instance, a holiday, political leader or new career, we create an image in our imagination of how great our choice will be, but it’s highly unlikely that our final reality will live up to our expectations; it’s this choosing that undermines us and results in disappointment.
b)…. our comparisons with others. How successful we perceive others to be, what they have or how attractive they are compared to us, all have an impact on how we feel about ourselves and our lot in life.
c) ……our past experience. We want our present reality to be better than our past reality by constantly improving, moving forwards and exceeding our expectations, however when this progression doesn’t seem to be happening, we feel disillusioned as our expectations have not been met.
There is a constant battle between our imagination and our reality, the reality we experience and the reality we think others experience, and the reality of our past. How can we win these battles?
Heather Marshall, in her TED Talk, ‘Letting Go of Expectations’, tells us that although these ‘ideas’ that we build up in our minds keep us feeling safe, they often prevent us from being fully present in our lives, and living to our highest potential too. They can adversely affect relationships as our expectation check-list acts like a third party, constantly vying for our attention and often wrecking our chances of enjoying what we do have in our relationships, by drawing our attention to what we don’t have, or what should be better. As we step away from relational connection to measure things up with our expectations, we miss the moment that is right in front of us.
This is all tough news to take for a Life-Coach and a person of faith, both major parts of my life which are focused around expectations. I also like having expectations, as they encourage me to reach for more and believe for better, for myself and for others. So why should I lower my expectations and be more realistic as Nat suggests or let my expectations go altogether as recommended by Heather? I am conscious as I write this, that I’m tightening my grip around my expectations, however I also know that there is some truth in what both Nat and Heather are saying. Sadly, I can frequent the expectation gap all too often! How can I manage the seeming impossibility of reaching for the stars, whilst having my feet firmly fixed to the ground at the same time?
I offer the following thoughts….
Cultivate hope. The dictionary definition of the word ‘expectation’ includes, ‘A belief that someone will or should achieve something’………. ‘should’ seems a tad insistent, demanding, presumptuous and a hard task-master. The definition for ‘hope’ by contrast includes, ‘A desire for a particular thing to happen’………… and desire echoes tolerance, compassion, benefit-of-the-doubt…….another chance. Why not consider exchanging the ridged ‘failure or success’ mindset that often accompanies expectation, for the patient optimism of hope?
Develop gratitude. If you don’t think you are naturally thankful, you needn’t worry - it’s just a habit away. A few years ago I started a gratitude diary, and at the end of each day I simply noted down one or two events that I was grateful for in the past 24 hours, whether it was a parking space, a positive response, an unexpected gift or simply the sunshine. Noticing these moments really helped me to have a much more constructive attitude and set me on a path to take note of the positives in life more than the negatives. Both positives and negatives still happen, but the thing is, where we focus our attention makes all the difference?
Address thinking errors. There are a few common cognitive errors that can sneak up on us and undermine our sense of wellbeing. I’ll just mention two of them here.
All-or-nothing thinking places our experiences or interactions into one of two categories, either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. Much of life sits somewhere between these two camps, but with this thinking error we can put all that isn’t perfect, but is still ok, into our ‘all bad’ category, and consequently have a much more gloomy view of life than is actually the case.
Overgeneralising is another unhelpful habit we make, which involves using words such as ‘always’ and ‘never’. Once we attach these negative rules to people, situations or circumstances, they can lock us into a belief system that, for the most part, simply isn’t true. Statements like, ‘He never helps!’, ‘She’s always late!’, ‘Men/women can’t ever be trusted!’ or ‘I’ll never be successful’, can be really damaging and even become negative prophecies. Changing words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘won’t’ or ‘can’t’ to something more open, honest and optimistic, gives room for possibility.
Practice humility. C.S Lewis said, ‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less’. Expectation can be a selfish preoccupation, when its focus is all about our own wants and needs, however having positive expectations for ourselves, our kids and our world is important and valuable, as long as it doesn’t become a rod with which to beat our own backs, or the backs of others. I have a friend who often quotes, ‘Things don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful!’ and she is right! She is able to turn what might appear to be a disaster, into…..well….. something wonderful….. rescuing us from our dark places with joy and laughter, and turning our every-day ordinary moments, into treasures.