Recently someone on Facebook asked the question, "I hear about letting go of my expectations all the time, but I don't hear much about how to do it. How do you let go of your expectations?"
What a great question! From my perspective, expectations are natural byproducts of a brain constantly scanning for danger and creating scenarios based on the past to predict the future. In a life or death situation, we rely on our capacity for analyzing our historic experiences to anticipate bad things that might happen to us, or even remember and cultivate good things, like where we might find our next meal more easily.
Yet most middle class people aren't in non-stop survival mode, and our survival reflexes don't help us solve the problems we usually face.(1)
So our survival reflexes end up getting triggered by our social experiences, instead of by physical danger and survival. This is a bit of a disaster for us as social animals, because we end up having bodily fight/flight responses to what are often relatively innocuous social transactions.
When people talk about "letting go of expectations," it is often in the context of romantic relationships. In romantic relationships, our expectations might lead us to experience hope and then disappointment if our hopes go unrealized. We hope that we might get what we want and need from our relationships, and we feel disappointed when we don't get our needs met, or even when getting what we want feels less satisfying than we imagined.
I think it's not expectations we need to let go of -- it's natural to predict the future based on past events. We need to stop when our attachment to an outcome turns into a bid for control. It's okay to want what we want, and normal to feel disappointed when we don't get it. It's when we start power playing to get what we want that things get complicated.
Claude Steiner's definition of a power play is making someone do what they don't want to do, or keeping them from doing what they want to do.(2) When someone tries to control their experience by controlling other people, I call this "externalizing." When we are externalizing, we experience the world as happening to us and we react to our feelings of hurt, grief, anger, fear and shame with attempts to stop the feelings by stopping other people from doing what they want to do, or getting them to do what they don't want to do. This often ends up producing disconnection, anger and defensiveness in others. We get more of what we don't want, and we become increasingly desperate. Yikes!
The alternative is extremely counter-intuitive. When we "internalize" our experience, accept the unacceptable and our powerlessness over other people, their feelings, our feelings and even our habits, instinctual behaviors, and circumstances beyond our control, we then can choose our response. While we might have to do our human homework and deal with our feelings of hurt, disappointment and grief first, we will eventually be able to turn our attention inward, determine 100% of what we want, and make a plan for how we want to handle our circumstances. Internalizing -- accepting the unacceptable, doing our human homework, and asking for 100% of what we want -- is a vastly more empowering and successful way of dealing with life and the often immense powerlessness we face everyday.(3)
It isn't easy to switch from a worldview that encourages us to externalize (attempt to control our experience) to a worldview that supports us to internalize (accept the unacceptable about our experience). Yet when we make the switch, we discover that our survival reflexes are less likely to get triggered, our stress reduces, and our interior state becomes much more peaceful. It takes 300 repetitions to get something new into muscle memory and 3000 repetitions to shift from one thing to another.(4) It's very helpful for the learning process to offer ourselves compassion as we practice.
I hope this short exploration of expectations was helpful to you, and I'd love to hear your questions and comments! If you'd like me to address your question, post it below or send me a private message.
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(1) Some people in the world live in a war zone, or their everyday lives are extremely dangerous. Their reality is constantly triggering their safety reflex. How we might handle expectations under those circumstances is quite different from when we face ordinary social interactions. In addition, we might have faced physical danger at some point in our lives, and folks with trauma histories are definitely dealing both with their current challenges and the ways their psychobiology responds to challenges that feel similar to past dangers. I have a great video on how to de-sensitize stress, anxiety and trauma on my YouTube channel if you'd like to watch it. Of course, if we are facing ongoing, present time trauma, we need different tools to address what's happening in our lives.
(2) Steiner, The Other Side of Power, 1982.
(3) Read more about accepting the unacceptable in Julia Kelliher's chapter "Loss and Disappointment: The Healing Power of Grief" in Access to Power, A Radical Approach for Changing Your Life, 2014. I cowrote this book and you can get a copy here. (If you want me to sign it, make sure you include that in the notes with your purchase!)
(4) Schmidt and Lee, Motor Control and Learning: A Behavioral Emphasis, 2011.
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