The peril of having expectations

We all have expectations every day. 

In fact, we can think of our brains as sophisticated machines that recognize patterns and predict the future, creating expectations.

Sometimes, expectations are useful. We expect people at a certain party to be dressed formally, so we also dress formally, to fit in. Simple. Useful.

Other times, our expectations cause problems.

For starters, our expectations are often wrong. We might be nervous all morning about an important afternoon meeting, expecting that we’ll have trouble justifying our work choices. But the meeting gets canceled and our worries were for naught. 

More insidiously, our expectations of potential future events can actually affect those future events. Let me give you two examples from my own life.

First, I climb regularly. If I expect to have a bad climbing day, and my first few attempts at scaling the wall are poor, I tend to buy into the narrative that the day is lost—and things spiral downwards from there.

Second, like many people, I sometimes worry about being able to fall asleep.  This is especially true when I try to take a nap during the day. Even if I close the curtains, put away my devices, and get comfy in the bed, I often stay awake because I’m paying too much attention to whether I’ve fallen asleep yet. Yet when I sit down to meditate and I try to pay attention to my breath, or to whatever else is happening around me, I nod off into sleep without trying or wanting to. What the heck, brain?

(On a side note, these two examples also illustrate a key lesson I’ve learned in the past few years: often, trying less hard produces better results.)

You might have other expectations that sabotage you. For example, many people expect that they will fail if they start a business, so they don’t try. Or they try, but then interpret any setbacks as signs that the business idea is doomed—a case of confirmation bias, just like when I prematurely judge my climbing day to be bad.

So how can we stop our expectations from sabotaging us? The key is to be aware of our expectations. With awareness, we can let expectations go, or cling to them less strongly. And as usual, we can train awareness by meditating.


— Peter

P.S. Are your expectations holding you back? Let’s talk about it in a free 30-minute introductory session for my coaching program.

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