Checking Expectations


Table with Italian food and bear while a woman is eating

Sometimes I’ll see something similar pop up in a variety of unrelated contexts in a very short period of time that causes me to think that I should be paying closer attention to it. It’s a bit like déjà vu in The Matrix, except with a slightly more rational explanation. I’m pretty sure I notice these connections because a part of me is looking for them.

This is why last week I was thinking about expectations .  I’m reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown and was reading the chapter related to expectations, disappointment, resentment, heartbreak, etc. It sounds really cheery, doesn’t it. Don’t get me wrong, the book is great, but I’m glad that I’m feeling so much better before I started reading it.

Anyway … I was reading that in the morning during my bus ride to work (it’s more environmentally friendly and my parking spot would be on the other end of campus) and in the afternoon I was listening to a podcast from Todd Henry that he’d released that very morning. On what topic? Anger and expectations.

In both the chapter and the podcast they brought up things about expectations that really hit me. We set expectations for experiences, for the behaviour of others, and for ourselves. This is fine, except when we do it wrong and then our expectations aren’t met and we are disappointed, resentful, heartbroken, etc. So how do we get setting expectations wrong?

I don’t know what you’re doing, but based on what Brene and Todd had to say, I now have a pretty good idea of what I’ve often got wrong.

For experiences, it’s tempting and even “normal” for people to think about a meal they’re going out to that night or a trip they’re going to take and set expectations for how good or bad the food will be or what things they’ll enjoy on that trip. The problem is that plans don’t always work out and we’re disappointed when we have to change them because of the expectations we’ve set.  This is one type of expectation that I think I’ve been getting much better at in the past year.

In the post I wrote while preparing for my recent keynote, I talked about knowing how I wanted to feel. I think setting expectations for that are much better because while we have some control over our feelings and how we respond to them, we can’t always control outside events. The restaurant that you’re going to may have had a pipe break so they had to close at the last minute. Instead of having Mexican food, you ended up going to the Italian restaurant across the street. The food was even better and the music set a great mood. See, expectations about how the experience was going to make you feel would likely be fine in this situation, but if your expectations were for the taste of Mexican food, you might spend the evening disappointed and not enjoy how great the Italian food was.

For me, it’s the other two areas that I realized last week I need to work on. I have expectations for others, which is fine, except that 1) I sometimes set those expectations too high and 2) I haven’t been great at sharing my expectations with people. Not only am I setting expectations that may be too high for the situation, but they don’t even know what those expectations are? Then I don’t get why they don’t understand my disappointment or anger, which usually becomes evident after I’ve bottled up my disappointment until I blow. I wrote about the importance of speaking up a couple of months ago and I think that I’m getting better about it, but I need to add speaking up about expectations ahead of time instead of when I’m already disappointed.

Finally, it’s no great mystery that I have long had problems with expectations for myself. I spent too many years with very low expectations for myself and it showed. The past few years I’ve had the opposite problem and I’ve often set expectations so high that I couldn’t meet them and then kicked myself for failing. These days I’m working on finding the sweet spot – setting realistic expectations that are achievable, but push me even just a bit.

I have one final comment on this. I think that I, and probably you, would be a lot better about setting expectations for experiences, others, and ourselves if we focused more on the why for the expectations we set. If the reason you’re going out for dinner is because you want to enjoy a meal with a friend, then set your expectations around that, not around the type of food or particular restaurant you’re going to. If you want someone to return something that they borrowed from you by Saturday, then tell them, but if you don’t NEED it Saturday then you may want to think more about why Saturday was the day you picked. And if you want to get a little fitter and have more energy, but the new workout plan you’ve been on for the past month has left you with blisters and you’re falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon, you need to rethink what you’re doing to better align with why you started doing it to begin with.

This went on way longer than I expected it to, but that’s okay with me because the point was to write about expectations and I really didn’t have a word count in mind.

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