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Remember your childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut? Or a rock star? We fantasized freely, with an open heart, vivid imagination, nothing but the spark of excitement and joy of possibility. Wide-eyed and ready to take on the world, we were curious and eager to explore. And then a few disappointments and regrets along the way turned all of our hopes and dreams into the weight of expectations.

The Trap Framework

Expectations live in everything we do and everyone we meet, in our conscious and subconscious mind, in the atmosphere of places, interactions, and circumstances. They might bring good energy, serve as motivation, or a sign of ambition. After all, we need to expect from ourselves a bit more every time we want to achieve new goals. Yet, more often than not, expectations are sticky, problematic, and act more like a trap than a push forward.

To break free from the cage we first need to understand its structure. The ironclad bars are sturdy and bent in different directions because each has been installed by someone or something over years and years of conditioning and pressure. We can place these bars in three categories:

  • Others’ expectations of us.
  • Our expectations of others.
  • Our expectations of ourselves.

We form them based on our knowledge of the world, our experiences at school, at home, or at work. We observe our friends, family, and acquaintances, and we build a net of our own hopes around other people. Various cultural traditions deserve a mention as well. Then we add a dimension of the mass media (social media leading the way), advertising, reviews, and online opinions. Enter the burden of comparison. We are bombarded with expectations from every possible angle, even from within.

Live and Let Live

In order for the world to function and move forward, we need rules and organization. Yet, how different are the laws of nature and physics from a code of conduct of a company or education system? External expectations are nothing but man-made constructs.

It’s been decided that only youth is beautiful and only strength is power. Women are expected to smile more and men to be alpha-tough. Introverts need to get out of their shells and mingle with people, and extroverts could turn their volume down a bit, please.

Mums are expected to look after their children and dads to support the family financially. For this reason, it would be fair to applaud dads at the playground (still, for fulfilling their fatherly duties), yet abstain from scorning women who want to build a career.

Our parents – with our very best interest in mind – expect us to become lawyers or doctors because it’s a solid career move that might potentially bring us financial prosperity (sometimes at the cost of our life satisfaction). And if you are happily unmarried? Every wedding you attend can easily turn into a festival of opinions and expectations to follow the path chosen for you by others.

As much as they are in place also for good reasons, the rules of our man-made systems make it hard to relish the richness of options life has to offer. Expectations can limit us, put constraints on our potential, derail our inner truth and purpose, and overwhelm us with demands. If we allow them, expectations will constantly poke our inner peace with a pointy stick.

Compare and Despair: The Hollywood Example

Lights, camera, action! The silver screen projected images of flawless appearance and exciting lives long before the birth of social media. It’s the bedrock of a wide range of unrealistic expectations generated by scripts and their shiny execution. Disney princesses created a blueprint for beauty, romantic comedies slightly distorted our view of love and healthy relationships, and all the rags-to-riches stories inspired us, yes, but also led us to believe that ordinary lives have less meaning.

“You look like a million dollars”, we sometimes say. People of wealth, in this case movie stars, present themselves exceptionally well because most of them work exceptionally hard to be able to afford their dream lifestyle. But we tend to build our expectations for our own reality based on a fraction of other people’s success presented to the public. Ask yourself: if given a chance, would you be willing to pay the same cost of fame, sacrifice, and constant criticism to “have it all”?

Money can buy you time with the best therapists, yet it may also be the reason you need professional help in the first place. Wealthy people still struggle with human experiences such as loss and grief, but they have to endure and work through their pain in the spotlight. That’s pressure on a cosmic level. Whenever you catch yourself forming expectations based on the tip of the iceberg you can see with your eyes, make sure to involve empathy and imagination to understand the bigger picture with your heart.

Alicia Keys Knows Best

It’s also unreasonable and unfair to think anyone can radiate perfection all the time. And yet, we expect teachers and coaches to have all the answers to our questions, and spiritual gurus to know all the secrets of the universe. Leaders can never get lost or fearful, and mental health professionals can never break down and cry. Also, changing your mind is almost always perceived as weakness, no matter who you are.

When Alicia Keys decided to stop wearing makeup a few years ago, it was considered a bold move. Why? Because in show business you are expected to look impeccable at all times. Alicia chose truth over glitter. She said, “I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles… Nothing.” Yes, that was a bold move. Towards mental wellbeing.

One time, Adam Levine peeked into Alicia’s dressing room when they were filming a show together and noticed she was putting on lipstick. Jokingly, he said, “Oh, I thought Alicia doesn’t wear makeup.” Her response? Liberated from the cage of expectations, she said, “I do what the f*ck I want”.

Expect the Unexpected

There’s nothing wrong with striving for excellence in all dimensions of our life. Hopes and dreams create ideals that can nudge us in the right direction and motivate us to reach for the stars – that’s ambition. Yet, we can only control our own actions and reactions. So many unforeseen obstacles might interfere with our plans that expecting a particular outcome of any situation becomes nearly impossible.

In fact, we are generally quite incapable of predicting the basics of our future. For example, research shows that newlyweds are likely to estimate their happiness levels will rise in marriage, and instead we observe a decline in their marital satisfaction. Another study proved that happiness in lottery winners tends to revert to the same or even lower level than before the win.

Life is unpredictable and expectations are no guarantee. We can stress all we want before a job interview, spend months preparing for an exam, or work our fingers to the bone in our startup to maximize our chances for success. Still, to expect anything would be folly.

That is not to say that you should lower your standards or settle for less, especially because everything you can expect from yourself still lies within your control. However, the only certainty that can live up to your expectation is the blissful freedom from it.

Letting Go

The simplest antidote to the expectations vs. reality disappointment is gratitude. It puts everything into perspective. In its essence you’ll find an incentive to let go. Every time it turns out you expected too much, instead of mulling the dissatisfaction over in your head, look for the lesson in it.

Sometimes, when we get less than what we initially wanted, but we focus on what we still have in our lives, something entirely different may manifest itself in front of us, something we never even realized we needed. When one door closes, another one opens.

Dismantling the complex trap of expectations might take as much time as it took to build it but it’s worth it. Freedom is calling your name. When we surrender to gratitude, reality might exceed our expectations in unexpected ways. Is this not why life is such an exciting adventure?

"My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations." ― Michael J. Fox

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