September 6, 2011

The Pain of Expectations

Last Monday, I flew home to my lake house in Canada for a week of relaxation. On the plane,  I sat in the window seat, staring out the window and envisioning a week of early morning risings, hours of writing, long beach walks, and family time.  In an attempt to create a more disciplined writing schedule, I set a goal to write six blog entries and another ten pages in my book.

After picking me up at the airport, my mom and I returned home, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief upon seeing the water.  I put my suitcase upstairs, caught up with my parents, and then opened my email.

Emails, unfortunately, have become mood dictators in my life.  When I see bold unread messages from friends, my heart quickly flutters in excitement. When I see bold unread spam, I get annoyed at having to go through the ten second routine of unsubscribing.  When I see bold unread messages from the organizations to whom I have applied for jobs, my stomach quickly churns.

Now normally when I open my email, I don't receive anything specifically new and exciting.  But this particular Gmail occurrence was Christmas in a box.  I found out that I had won an essay-writing competition and was chosen to attend Donna Karan's WIE Symposium, a conference relating to Women and Power--the very topic of my book.  I also received two job interviews, both for organizations for whom I'd love to work.  One of them scheduled a phone interview for that week, and the other scheduled an in person interview for the next.  After being informed that part of the latter interview would be in Spanish, and realizing that I hadn't practiced my Spanish in five years (panic!), I googled "emergency Spanish tutor Buffalo, New York," and immediately scheduled five consecutive days of one-on-one Spanish refreshment classes.

Just like that, after reading those emails in the first hour of being home, my week of writing dissipated into job preparations, tutorial sessions, and driving back and forth to the city.  While the actual act of speaking Spanish to an old Chilean man was not particularly stressful, nor was preparing for my phone interview, nor was submitting my bio to the conference, mentally I was stressed.  In light of the conference and job prospects, I was not only was considering postponing my flight to Kenya, but canceling it in replace of a Costa Rican Spanish immersion.  My "just take time out of your schedule to dedicate to writing" plan was now in question and my visual expectations of how the next few months would unfold was turned upside down. 

What I really found amusing (translate: sickening) was that wonderful opportunities were causing me stress . . .  because they were unexpected.  They say the only thing that is certain in life is change.  So why am I surprised when my plans don't go as scheduled? Why do I get flustered when the unexpected happens? These past few weeks I've been reflecting on the unexpected, and I've thought about how it's not the unexpected that causes me stress, but rather the fact that I had expectations to begin with. 

Not all my expectations are big.  I may have 25 small, seemingly trivial expectations in a given day.  I expect I will accomplish certain things on my to do list;  I expect that my subway train will timely appear; I expect that people will act in a civilized matter (so not always the case); I expect that my computer will turn on when I want it to; I expect that I'll get through the day safely, and so on. 
By placing these unnecessary expectations on my day, I set myself up to feel frustrated when these things don't go as planned.  

Not only do I place expectations on my day, but I place them on my relationships, be it with friends, family, or strangers.  Unconsciously, I always have an expectation as to how someone should react, and when they don't, I feel hurt.  If I smile at someone in line and she scoffs back at me, I'm taken aback.  If a friend doesn't call me back when I planned, I feel hurt.  When a family member doesn't support me in the way I want to be supported, I feel saddened. 

Alex and I had a long talk a few nights ago about this topic and he artfully said, "we set ourselves up to feel frustrated when we expect the people around us to act like we would act."  Meaning, we place the expectations of what we would do on other people.  If Alex responds to a situation in a way different than I would respond to a situation, and I think that I respond to the situation better, I get frustrated with him.  This is not only unfair, but causes pain to both of us. Instead of figuring out how he failed my expectations, I need to reassess what my expectations are, why I even have them, and how these expectations lead to disappointment. This entry easily segues into the difference between conditional and unconditional love, but that's a topic I'll explore later.

How can I stop having expectations altogether?  I'm not entirely sure, but I'm working on it. Phillip Moffitt wrote an article about The Tyranny of Expectations, wherein he discerned the difference between falling prey to expectations and opening to unknown possibilities. Perhaps, slowly, I can start to loosen my expectations as I go, reminding myself that the unexpected is more sure than the expected and finding excitement in the possibilities of a constantly changing and unpredictable life.


  1. You are amazing; seriously. This is why I love you. Lordy, you are my best friend.
    You're an amazing writer and I love you, Ker!
    Well said and by far one of my favorite posts by you! Congrats; always so proud of you!

  2. Thanks Aims! Can't wait to explore some new ideas with you on our next walk!

  3. Great post Ker! Very interesting. I think there is a line to be drawn between putting expectations on ourselves and putting them on others. Expectations can be healthy...heck if you didn't have any you might not have finished school or written that award winning essay, but when we put them on others it becomes challenging. Zach and I talked about this a few weeks ago. I too expect him to act a certain way and will often suggest/tell him what to do, but that's not fair. He's smart and I trust him and I can learn from his decisions, which are often different than mine.

    Anyway...let's talk about this over a glass of wine and some roast chicken accompanied by cheesy risotto when you are here in a couple weeks!!! xoxo

  4. my security word that I had to enter in order to post the comment was 'pot roast' ...maybe this is a SIGN! although I'm not sure I like pot roast

  5. Yes Tal-more to talk about in Swissland about this issue. I agree that a dose of expectation (perhaps in the form of goals) can put a little fire under my ass. But expectations in my relationships always seem to end in a losing situation. Can't wait to see you!