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Is the secret to a blissful life really as easy as letting go of your expectations? That’s what my therapist friend believes… or that it is at least a big step in the right direction on our path to happiness. But how do we let go of expectations when the very idea has been ingrained in our minds since… well, forever?
Let’s be honest. Expectations set you up for failure, heartache, frustration, suffering, and disappointment – pretty much 99.9% of the time.
At some point in my life, I got tired of all the disappointments and my heart being broken because what I expected didn’t come to fruition. After a lot of reflection and hard work (and it still is hard work!), I try my absolute best to not have expectations. I try to let things be, as the pieces may fall where they will.
Following this “strategy” has made me more at peace and accepting of life, events, and myself. Sure, I still want to slap myself when I have an expectation (a pesky habit that’s hard to shake 100%), but I try to do better next time.
Are you tired of your expectations letting you down? Well, I’ve got great news for you. In this guide, you’ll learn all about expectations and how to let go to live the happier and freer life you are worthy of.
What Are Expectations?
An expectation is a want, desire, belief, or emotional anticipation you have about a future vision of yourself, an event, or action. The future belief can be short term (5 minutes or a day from now), medium term (a week or a month from now), or long term (years from now).
Expectations can also be realistic or unrealistic, and it’s usually the “pie in the sky,” “airy-fairy” expectations that cause us hurt, suffering, and frustration.
You can have expectations about anything – yourself, your friends and family, strangers, objects, events, or life in general. Having an expectation is like having a pseudo reality you look forward to manifesting and actualizing.
An example of a realistic expectation would be that you expect to start a new job on October 30 because that’s what the date on your contract with your new employer states. This expectation is like an agreement between you and your boss – you both agreed on your starting date.
On the other hand, an example of an unrealistic expectation would be that you’ll get the job you interviewed for. You have some measure of control over the outcome – how well you prepare for the job, the experience you have to offer, and how you conduct yourself during the interview.
But the ultimate decision to hire you or not is the HR manager’s or employer’s. There’s no “agreement” that you’ll get the job – just an unrealistic belief that you are good enough and the company should hire you.
When we expect things, we believe that something will happen in one way, but things don’t always go according to plan, or you expected more than what was realistically possible. When the expectation doesn’t become reality, we feel disappointment and eventually even resentment.
The power of unmet expectations is so significant – it negatively impacts how we see ourselves, the people around us, and the world.
Why Do We Have Expectations? Where Do They Come From?
Having expectations (aka premeditated resentments) leads you down the road of disappointments. But why do we have expectations in the first place? Are they something we learn? Are they something we intrinsically have?
Expectations are rooted in experiences you have with:
It feels like you are programmed to have (and live up to) expectations. Past experiences all teach us a few things, and one of these lessons is to form expectations. For example, I had a “friend” at school who only ever talked to me when she wanted something. Repeated exposure to this behavior has taught me to expect that she wanted something when she was being nice to me.
But expectations are rooted in how we think about things. Children and adults may find it difficult to distinguish between the subject worlds their mind creates and the real outer, objective world.
It’s sometimes easy to think that your thoughts have a direct correlation to causality – thinking angry thoughts about your colleague caused them to have a car accident.
This is magical thinking, and it’s a significant challenge to let go of the idea that just because you expect something doesn’t make it so (or hold you responsible for bad things happening).
The Effects of Having Too High Expectations
Expectations are not the same as having goals or aspirations. Goals are intentional and achievable.
You work toward a goal you have to make it come true. The outcome of a goal is predictable, and you can make adjustments on your journey to the goal destination. An expectation is merely a perception (and desire and false hope) that something will turn out a certain way; it’s generally ambiguous and possible but not probable.
It’s essential to note that not all expectations are bad. It’s the unrealistic expectations and the too high expectations that trip you up, setting you up for failure. We falsely believe that having expectations results in happiness when the future want or belief is fulfilled. But in reality, the happiness equation looks more like:
happiness = reality – expectations
There’s always a cost to having an expectation.
The effects of too high and unrealistic expectations are many. These kinds of expectations:
When you have (too high) expectations, you feel like you have a sense of control over your future, but in essence, it’s merely an illusion. Goals are something you can control; expectations aren’t.
Danger! Warning Signs You Should Let Go of Your Expectations
Several warning signs that it’s definitely time for you to let go of expectations are when:
7 Steps for How to Let Go of Expectations
Before we dive into how to let go of expectations, I want to note that not having expectations doesn’t mean that anything goes, or you allow people to treat you however they want. Instead, letting go of expectations is a freeing habit where you stop feeling guilty, disappointed, and hurt when your expectations of yourself and others aren’t met.
It’s understanding that you don’t have absolute control over everything and that magical thinking is just that – “magical” or make believe.
Ready to let go of your expectations? Follow these steps.
1. Identify Your Expectations
Whenever you want to change something, you need to first acknowledge that it exists and it is a problem. So the first step in how to let go of your expectations is to realize that you have expectations and then identify what they are.
What are your expectations of yourself?
What do you consciously and unconsciously expect of others?
What are your expectations regarding events in your life, your future dreams, and the world in general?
It’s a good idea to journal about your expectations so you can become consciously aware of the expectations you have. You can’t always take time and write about your expectations, so eventually, you want to move toward being mindful about having expectations.
Next, you need to put each expectation into perspective. Is this expectation something you have control over? If it is, turn it into a goal so you can adjust your thoughts and actions according to how reality unfolds. If the expectation isn’t something you can control, move to the next step.
2. Change Your Mindset & Cultivate Your Inner Voice
Once you know you have expectations and you know what they are, you can work on changing your mindset. You want to think about things differently.
When you have an expectation about something and things don’t turn out the way you wanted (or expected) them to, it’s easy to fall into a negative mindset. A bad hour easily turns into a bad day, which can quickly become a bad week.
This kind of mindset where you are disappointed, angry, and hurt because things didn’t go your way doesn’t serve a purpose.
Instead, you need to take control and think about yourself, events, others, and life differently. Try to think positively about the situation – see a setback with optimism and ask what the lesson was. Also, focus on what you are doing and the good and not what you may be missing out on.
Choosing to find the positive in any situation helps you practice gratitude and appreciation – identify and focus on what you have. It’s a space to enjoy the present. Sure, your mom didn’t get you the birthday gift you wanted, but she did think of you and she made an effort. She loves and cares for you, even if the gift wasn’t spot on.
Part of changing your mindset is cultivating your inner voice or dialog. Are you kind in the way you speak to yourself? Do your thoughts reflect who you are and who you want to be? Or do they focus on who you should be (which is an expectation)?
Your inner voice should be shaped by you – not other people’s thoughts and opinions.
3. Focus on Your Journey
The next step in how to let go of expectations is to focus on the journey. When we have an expectation, we are sometimes so focused on the destination or the end product that we don’t see the process or the journey. Since an expectation is a future thought, want, or belief, we look into the future and expect things to be better then.
Look at the now. The present. The journey. Focus on the progress and process. Enjoy every small success and every failure too as it presents you an opportunity to learn and reflect.
4. Define Your Goals and Wants
It’s time to define some goals and wants (aka reasonable desires). Essentially, you want to replace your expectations with concrete, realistic, achievable, and actionable goals and wants and leave the airy-fairy expectations high up in the clouds where they belong.
5. Celebrate Every Victory
As you work on your goals, it’s important to celebrate every little victory and accomplishment. This is such a boost for your self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence, and it helps to set you up for success.
Think about it.
If you enjoy every step you make toward progress and spend a moment celebrating a win, it’ll make you WANT to continue and keep going. The more you progress and achieve milestones, the more success is a given.
Plus, as you focus on the process (the journey) and your wins, the fewer expectations you’ll have.
6. Plan Ahead
If we are realistic, we know and understand that things don’t go according to plan – whether you have expectations or not. And that’s okay. It’s part of life.
The universe throws a curve ball to nudge you in a different direction – maybe a road you are supposed to be on. But irrespective, it’s a good idea to have a few backup plans and plan ahead.
Have a plan B and plan C in addition to plan A, so you are prepared for the unexpected. Having concrete, realistic plans keeps you from having expectations.
7. Heed Your Thoughts; Control Your Actions
The last step is acceptance while you watch your thoughts and control your actions. In life, you only have control over yourself – what you think, what you do, and how you behave. That’s it.
So exert control where it’s yours. Control your thoughts by focusing on the positive, the journey, the progress, the lessons, and every victory. Control your actions to help you better handle what life throws at you.
It’s okay to not be in control all the time or in charge over every little thing. Just breathe and control what you can. Make an active choice to let go and move on and not waste energy dwelling on unmet expectations and what-ifs.
Final Thoughts on How to Let Go of Expectations
I’ve learned the hard way, over and over again (sadly), that having expectations leads to eternal disappointment… whereas having none allows you to be blissfully surprised and accept life as it comes. It isn’t easy to let go of expectations, and even when you’ve followed all the steps I’ve outlined above, it’s continuous work to focus on having goals and not expectations.
Remember: Leave the “shoulda couldas” at the door. No more “what should I do” or “what could the future hold.” Take control over your mindset and actions, and live your life free of the burden of having expectations.
Live in the moment and practice gratitude. And if you still feel stuck having unrealistic expectations and asking yourself why you can’t do anything right, be sure to check out our article on 13 things you CAN do!