Lowering Your Expectations

Here’s something I’m passionate about: drivers should indicate when they are turning or changing lanes. I get really upset when I’m about to step out into the road and a jeep careens around the corner in front of me, or when I’m driving and a car slows down in front of me for no apparent reason, and then veers off to the side.

I can easily justify my anger because the law is on my side, and most people probably agree with me and feel similar to an extent. So, if I’m right and they’re wrong, why am I the one who’s upset? The non-indicator is most likely oblivious to the whole thing and happily continuing on with their day. I’m feeling upset and irritable, and while I’m in this state I’m disconnected from the people and things that are actually important to me.

Life can be disappointing

As we mature into adults, we develop this incredible capacity to plan for the future and envision our ideal life. We develop expectations about how the world should work and how people should act: my boss should listen to me; my partner should do their fair share; my kids shouldn’t be ninja-fighting in the lounge room; the weather should be nice this weekend. The problem is, the ideal almost never happens, and we are left in an imperfect world that rarely lives up to our hopes and dreams.

Depressing, right? Well, it depends. See, some people feel the same way as I do about indicators, but when they see someone carelessly changing lanes without indicating, they just shrug and continue on their merry way. How do they do it? There is one bulletproof principle that can help anyone overcome the smaller and bigger disappointments life constantly presents us.

The principle:

Lower your expectations

First, let me explain what I don’t mean by this. I don’t mean: drop your standards. I don’t mean: let other people walk all over you.

What I do mean is this: sometimes we hold our ideal expectations in front of us, judging the world against them, which can lead to anger and depression when the world doesn’t measure up. It’s like a constant reminder of how disappointing everything is. Or, we could expect everything to go wrong, and then our brain will start to amplify all the negativity and then we will get exactly what we expected. Lowering your expectations means removing all positive and negative expectations from your view, just as a fighter “lowers” his guard, and just experiencing life as it unfolds in front of you.

For example, when I see someone who doesn’t indicate, I can just see it as a thing that happened and move on with my day. If I want to, I can let it support my belief that we are living in an imperfect world, and that some people do these things, and that’s just the way it is. In fact, instead of being disappointed every time someone doesn’t indicate, I could celebrate every time someone does! It sounds silly, but which one would make me a happier person?

Life unexpected

Think of the implications of this: every gift you received would be a wonderful surprise; not a let-down when you find out it isn’t what you “expected”. Well-behaved children would be appreciated. Poorly behaved children would be… poorly behaved children – still a trial to deal with but not a kick in the guts like it was before. More importantly, you would be more deeply connected to the important people and things in your life as you experience them for what they are, not what you want them to be.

Lowering your expectations can also help you make positive changes in your own life. In therapy, “should” is a dirty word. You can go ahead and say it as much as you want, and it may be absolutely true: but it won’t get you anywhere. The word “should” is just a description of how you think the world should work, but the reality is that it doesn’t. Focussing on this won’t change anything, and will most likely make you feel powerless and disappointed (not a great launching point for changing yourself!). When you stop saying “they should” and start saying “I could…”, you are getting ready to change for the better.

We could put all of this another way: life is full of an infinite amount of good things and an infinite amount of bad things. That’s just the way things are. We will be confronted by both. If we expect everything to be perfect, we will be disappointed. If we expect everything to be rubbish, we will be able to find plenty of evidence for this. However, if we can “lower” the expectations that are blocking our view, and just experience the world for what it is, we are in a better position to celebrate the good things that happen and gently release the things we find undesirable.

I can’t say it any better than this translation of the Tao Te Ching, chapter 2:]

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non‐being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

(Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu – translation by Stephen Mitchell)