My friend was complaining that his neighbor was mean, that he knew this because of the few times he has said hi to her, she rarely replied and when she did, she sounded annoyed. I then had this conversation with him:
Me: “Yes, I used to be annoyed too until I learned to let go of my expectation that everyone should reply.”
Him: “No, I don’t have expectations of people like that.”
Me: “Well, you seem upset about it. Why are you upset?”
Him: “I was taught that when you greet someone, they should greet you back. That is common social decency.”
Me: “So you got irritated because she did not exhibit social decency?”
Me: “So you expected her to say hi back and when she didn’t, you got annoyed?”
Him (with chagrin): “Yeah, I guess I did have an expectation… but it was drilled into me by my parents.”
Me: “I understand. Most of my expectations came from my parents also.” (Another one to blame the parental units for!)
I believe that letting go of expectations is the key to avoid getting upset or annoyed by the actions of others or even by random events. If you expect your spouse to read your mind, be ready for disappointment. If you expect that life should be fair and bad things happen to you, you are going to be angry. I didn’t discover this principle; it is nothing new and is actually one of the primary teachings of Buddhism (and probably other faiths).
Training Wheels: The Anti-expectation
Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step manual to letting go of expectations. You are told to let go of expectations, but how to go about doing that? There are fortunate people out there who can just decide to let go, but I’m not one of them. I had to come up with my own method.
Because it is easier to replace something than to just get rid of it (leaving a vacuum), I decided that I needed to replace the expectations with something else. Similar to how a smoker would replace cigarettes with a nicotine patch, I decided to replace an expectation with its opposite, an anti-expectation. An anti-expectation is not a low expectation; it goes all the way to the opposite end. Optimists would call it a totally negative expectation; I call it keeping my sanity.
Some examples of anti-expectations:
- I do not expect people to reply to my greeting or to demonstrate social decency at all.
- I do not expect my spouse to read my mind.
- Life is not fair. Sometimes, it looks like life is out to get me.
With high expectations, you’ll be disappointed most of the time. With low expectations, you’ll be disappointed some of the time. With strict anti-expectations, you’ll be occasionally pleased when people and events exceed your anti-expectations. Which kind of expectation would you rather adopt in your life?
For my friend, if he held the anti-expectation that his neighbor would not return his greeting, he can continue to greet her pleasantly, take her non-replies in stride, and occasionally be pleasantly surprised when she greets him back. Maybe, her greeting will be so enjoyable that it will give the rest of his day a positive glow.
If you are married and hold the anti-expectation that your spouse cannot read your mind at all, you’ll assume he or she is as obtuse as a rock (though very lovable) and requires very clear communications. And even when he or she messes up, you are not upset because well, what can you expect? You probably didn’t do a good enough job explaining it. And when they do exceed your expectation by getting it partly right or totally right (pigs are flying), you’ll be so giddy that your feet will not touch the ground for the rest of the day.
If you don’t expect life to be fair, you’ll be the calm at the center of any storm. Tornado throws a tree missile through your living room? Well, you’re just glad no one got hurt. When a cashier overcharges your grocery, you’re glad you only lost a few bucks instead of a million dollars because that could totally have happened! Your coworker, who you think is less capable (though still very likeable), gets the promotion you believe you deserve; oh well, it’s amazing that even one of you minions got promoted and it offers that tiniest chance that life will decide to stop screwing with you and promote you someday… maybe… probably not.
To start, you’ll need to practice identifying the broken expectation when you get disappointed, upset, or annoyed at the actions of others or events. Once you have identified the expectation, you can pretend that you believe in its opposite, the anti-expectation. Mulling over the anti-expectation will then quell the disappointment. (What are you disappointed about? After all, you anti-expected it in the first place. Duh!) With practice (a month or two), this will become a habit. With even more practice (several months), the time between the disappointment and move from expectation to anti-expectation will reduce — until the disappointment, identified expectation, and anti-expectation occur almost simultaneously.
Letting Go (After A Lot Of Hard Work)
Eventually (after half a year to a year of practice), you will find that things which bothered you in the past will no longer disappoint, upset, or irritate you. It would seem as if you have no expectations, that you have successfully let them go (at least for those expectations that you have practiced anti-expectations for). I believe that practicing the anti-expectation will train your subconscious mind to disregard the unmet expectation immediately, so that no emotion response occurs. Letting go of an expectation means that you are no longer affected by whether it is met or unmet.
Unfortunately, learning to let go of one expectation does not automatically get rid of all your other expectations. You will have to put in the work for each expectation that you identify and wish to let go of. Over time, with practice, it should become easier and less time-consuming to do the anti-expectation work.
I don’t think it is healthy to let go of all your expectations. The expectations you might consider keeping are positive expectations concerning yourself (like achieving life goals) and expectations concerning how others should treat you (they should treat you well). If you keep those expectations, you will want to manage how you react when those expectations are not met or violated. You will want to react understandingly and calmly, while determining your next steps.
The solution is to simultaneously hold both the expectation and its anti-expectation in your head. The practice of recognizing your unmet expectation and then bringing its anti-expectation to mind should hopefully have given you this ability to have two conflicting thoughts at the same time (well, almost at the same time). When an expectation you have decided to keep is not met, the existence of its anti-expectation should blunt any emotional reaction and give you the clear head to decide what to do next.
If you have placed the expectation on yourself to win the gold medal, but end up with the bronze, it’s okay; you’ve tried your best. If a friend consistently mistreats you, you may decide to hold onto the expectation that friends should treat you well and gracefully reduce the time you spend with that friend. The anti-expectations should prevent any regrettable, emotional reaction. You’ll be more understanding and forgiving because you know that you are choosing to hold that expectation for yourself, not anyone else.
The Serenity Prayer authored by Reinhold Niebuhr:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
I think the goal is to not hold expectations that you have no control over (other people’s actions and events) and to hold expectations that you have autonomy over (yourself, how you react to others, and how you allow yourself to be treated by others). I find this way of looking at things very empowering and hope that you will too.