Expectations are part of our mental programming. Without them we wouldn’t accomplish very much as they are a key source of motivation and goal setting. However, they are also a source of emotion for us, they can provide joy (when our expectations are met) or something more negative like anger or shame (when our expectations are not met). Expectations are tricky as we may not always be aware of the expectations we’ve formed for ourselves or others. What is really interesting about expectations is that they are the most fundamental source of anger, particularly when they are not met (for a great article on this aspect of expectations please see http://www.eidi-results.org/articles/TheExpectationsGame.html).
Lets “test drive” this link between expectations and emotions. Examine the last time you were angry (with yourself or with another person), what was the source of the anger? Give yourself a few minutes to puzzle this through, as you may need to push past thoughts of “I was so stupid” or “person X was so selfish”. Go deeper, push past judgment (which we all do as perfectly imperfect humans) and really get to the foundation of your concern. Likely what you find at the bottom is an expectation that was not met. The judgment is your narrative around why what you expected to be present should have been there and it drives emotion (which is ever-present) to a whole different level. Voila, strong emotion. This is something that happens for everyone, it transcends culture and gender. It is a part of being human. So what can we do with something we need, like expectations, but is also the basis of amplifying our strongest emotions (often when we least expect it)?
First, apply self-compassion. This is simple and makes sense, but is much harder to do in practice. However, it is a key step to ensuring you understand that what you feel is important – you need to give your emotions their moment. How you do that is the cornerstone to maintaining your relationships with others and (in the case of anger) you wouldn’t be the first person to head to the washroom to have a little venting session in private to keep your relationships (and self esteem) in tact. It always helps to manage the way you present yourself by having coping tactics close to hand (go for a walk, close the door to your office for a few minutes, sit in your car, etc.). Remember, you are human and you ignore that at your peril. What happens next is really important to the process of being able to manage those emotions as sitting with them for a few minutes and naming them (“Oh, I am so upset right now, I feel angry!”) is just the tip of the iceberg. Recognizing that you are allowed to feel the way you do, but that you also need to move on to objectivity, is the path to managing the swell of strong emotion.
Objectivity is illusive, but near to hand. It can be as simple as saying “I am really upset right now and not seeing things clearly” – that (in the heat of the moment) is an important measure of objectivity. Many of us think that objectivity is about seeing things completely from another point of view (changing our opinion), but what we may not see is that objectivity comes on a scale. Part of self-compassion is allowing yourself the time to move up that scale from “I am not seeing things clearly” to “I can see this from another person’s perspective”. Without the ability to move up that scale we force ourselves to live in anger (or fear, shame, etc.), which takes a lot of energy and requires a lot of “mental real-estate”. It can plague our thoughts, coming to us at unwelcome times when we’d rather be enjoying ourselves. Sometimes, even with the benefit of time, we may become resistant to looking at things in another way or asking questions to gather more information - we just don’t want to be objective, sometimes we just want to be right. Except that when we are not objective we’ve never been further away from being right (or more accurately, being just) – it is a paradox. It is all part of being human; if you want expectations and emotions to stop dictating your feelings and actions then consider giving yourself the time and space to move up the scale of objectivity. You don’t have to make it all the way to seeing things completely from another point of view either. All you need to do to help yourself emotionally is recognize that there is more than one side to an issue and you can’t always “see” it; by acknowledging that there may be more to it (and that the something “more” may not support your current thoughts or judgments) you give yourself room to move and to breathe. In addition to allowing you to cope with your emotions, it can also re-scale your expectations (making them much more manageable and achievable).
Why is objectivity, and being aware of how our expectations drive emotions, important? Because it is how we “show up” in life. While many of us are masters at managing our emotions, it doesn’t mean that our opinions and judgments aren’t subtly leaking out, becoming apparent to others. Our reactions form a pattern of behaviors (large and small) that are discernable to others over time – both positive and negative. It’s much easier to see from “outside” than from “within” (which is why we can’t see this consistently in ourselves). The negative pieces are usually fueled by unmet expectations and are the most apparent to others. There is an illustrative quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn that says “Wherever you go, there you are”, which is true, we can only be ourselves (whether we want to or not). One way to “see” ourselves more objectively is by reflecting on our expectations and how they are driving our emotions.