How to Let Go of Your Expectations and Live a Happier Life
Updated: Dec 18, 2019
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash
From a young age, I believed that my thoughts attract certain events into my life and by expecting something to happen I can make it happen. As I grew older, "The Power of Positive Thinking" - that describes how to achieve desired outcomes though positive thoughts - was one of my favorite books.
I still believe that positive thoughts combined with consistent actions can empower me to achieve my goals. However, as I faced several big disappointments earlier this year, I’ve realized that life does not always turn out the way I want it to be (regardless of my thoughts). Gradually, I’ve started to learn how to let go of my expectations to feel happier and more satisfied with my life.
“The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it.”
Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
We all set expectations for our lives and for ourselves. Some of those expectations are optimistic, while others are pessimistic. Sometimes people set their expectations too low, which limits their potential. Other times, people set unrealistic or unattainable expectations, which can cause a lot of frustration.
How expectations are created
Generally, our expectations are focused on the future and involve events or people (or sometimes both). Our mind does not like to deal with uncertainty, and it creates predictions how we would like an event to unfold or a person to act. There are expectations we create for ourselves and expectations we hold for others.
As we create a particular outcome in our mind’s eye, we attach certain feelings towards that expectation. The more significant an event or a person is, the stronger feelings we can feel towards our predictions.
Expectations can come either from ourselves or from others. Those expectations are the bars we set for our lives. When our reality matches them, we feel accomplished and happy.
Robert Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy states that if someone expects something, this expectation comes true because one has certain beliefs about circumstances, events, or people that may affect a person’s behavior towards them in a way that causes those expectations to be fulfilled.
What happens when our expectations are not fulfilled
When our predictions turn out to be wrong and our expectations are not matched by reality, we feel disappointed, sad, angry, frustrated, resentful and unhappy.
When we create expectations, we convince ourselves of the importance of certain things, which should happen in certain ways, even when those specific ways have little influence over our lives.
When we encounter an outcome that is different from what we expected (it is not any worse than the one we had in mind, just different), it can make us feel down. We feel that our wishes have been denied and we have not received what we had hoped for.
If the actual outcome is actually worse for us (or we perceive it as being worse), our feeling of sadness and disappointment can be even stronger.
Disappointment is especially likely when we have unrealistic expectations of a positive outcome. We set high hopes that something good will happen and then feel defeated, even when we know that the probability of that event occurring is relatively low.
How negative expectations are created
Along with creating desired optimistic outcomes, our mind can create negative expectations, which could lead to anticipatory anxiety. People could feel fearful for an extended period of time about an imagined future situation that is perceived as a threat.
When we convince ourselves that something bad is going to happen, we live with the feelings of anxiety, fear and stress.
As the outcome finally comes, it usually turns to be more positive than what we thought. However, all the anxiety and fear has already taken a toll on our minds and bodies and we just feel too exhausted to enjoy a more optimistic outcome.
How to manage your expectations
Expectations can have a positive impact on your life. The more you expect of yourself, the more you tend to do.
However, if you feel that your expectations cause you great disappointment and frustration when they are not realized, you need to learn how to let go and live in a more flexible way to not only feel happier, but also improve your ability to adapt and move forward.
Expectations about how your life is supposed to happen can hold you back because they block your peripheral vision and do not allow you to see other possible ways towards achieving your goals.
How to let go of expectations
The process of letting go of expectations requires a hard and deep soul work. It involves awareness, acceptance, gratitude, mindfulness and resentment release.
Awareness entails the recognition and understanding of the emotions that you are experiencing, without any judgement or guilt. You start noticing throughout the day the emotions you feel when things are not unfolding how you wanted them to.
By observing the expectations you've created in your life, you can better understand the underlying beliefs and reasons behind those expectations. Awareness also helps you become more cognizant about how realistic your expectations are and what you are really trying to achieve.
Acceptance means experiencing life just the way it is. It's natural for people to accept positive experiences and emotions and resent negative ones. In most life situations, you have two options to choose from: you can either accept what’s happening or resist it/fight against it.
Acceptance does not imply feeling weak and giving up. You might still want things to be different in the future and you might want to take actions towards the desired outcome, but in the present moment you just accept things as they are.
There are some challenges in life, such as the death of a loved one, which are very difficult to embrace. Unfortunately, no matter how much you fight and resist those things, they are not going to change.
You can never be in complete control of what happens to you. You can only control how you choose to respond to each situation.
Gratitude practice - taking time to notice and reflect upon the things and experiences you are thankful for - can help you appreciate positive aspects of your life and stay more optimistic.
One of the ways to practice gratitude is to write three to five things you feel grateful for in your journal.
Gratitude also empowers you to look for positive outcomes in any situation. Looking at a problem from an angle of potential opportunity can help you minimize the feelings of resentment and disappointment.
Mindfulness - the ability to stay present in the moment - can help you become more aware of what you are doing, feeling and thinking. Mindfulness involves acceptance as it requires you to observe your thoughts and experiences without judging them as good or bad.
Mindfulness meditation practice can tremendously reduce stress and anxiety. While many people think of meditation as something you do sitting cross-legged inside a yoga studio or Buddhist temple, it can be as simple as paying attention to your breath while driving a car, eating your lunch or taking a shower.
People feel resentful when they recall painful memories about other people or events that happened or did not happen in the past. Resentment comes from re-experiencing past injustices, either real or perceived.
To deal with your resentment, you need to recognize whom or what you feel resentment towards, why you feel that resentment, the negative ways it has affected your life and what role you played in those situations.
Once you've digested the causes and reasons for feeling resentful, you need to forgive other people involved (if possible) and move on. That's easier said than done, but carrying an extra burden of resentment will only cause you more pain.
As an optimist, I still hope for the best outcome in each situation. At the same time, these practices help me to let go of my expectations how my life is supposed to be and accept it just the way it is.
"Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than how you think it should be."
Wayne Dyer, There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem