The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 166: Disappointment & Low Expectations

It's often said that optimism isn't all it's cracked up to be. That expecting the best only leads to disappointment, and I can understand why but I think it's important to see the difference between expectations and goals.
You can have high goals but don't necessarily need high expectations in order to reach them because theres a difference between having low expectations and NO expectations. Having no expectations can prevent the disappointment that comes from setting your sights too high and so allows you to enjoy whatever you experience. But having negative expectations or rather expectations could easily spoil what would have been a nice experience because you might've primed yourself to look for what is bad about it rather than what is good.
We can protect ourselves from disappointment by not thinking about things working out for us but we have to keep it under control. But the opposite, expecting everything to be perfect is just as problematic when so much of your life is outside of your control.
A good example of this is with relationships. If you create an image of the perfect partner that you expect to spend your life with then you'll always feel as if you could have done better, and that's not fair on either of you. Especially when you know someone so intimately and they feel so comfortable around you that they no longer hide behind the mask of perfection that they might have done at the start of a relationship.

Does that mean we should expect the worst of everyone though, so that anything better than that is a bonus? That can be just as problematic though. If you prime yourself for negativity then you'll create a feeling about it even when the reality doesn't match. You'll be resentful, anxious or angry for no reason.
I think it might be better to have no expectations at all and just take it as it comes. That way we can deal with things in the moment. After all, the future hasn't happened yet and is mostly outside of our control anyway so spending time thinking about it is probably pointless.
Thinking about the future means that your thoughts will create an unconscious expectation, even if you consciously know full well it isn't realistic. When our brain is expecting something to happen, which then doesn't happen, our brain creates emotion, often we label it as anxiety, especially if we don't really know why our brain and body has just reacted.
Maybe the key to all this is simply acceptance. Accepting what has happened and dealing with it, maybe learning from it. Although, it depends what you learn from life lessons. We can learn to expect disappointment from being let down by people, and we can learn not to trust. We can learn that ALL men are cheaters. Or we can learn self respect and maybe even forgiveness, we can learn to move on and learn that holding grudges hurts ourselves more than it hurts someone else.

There's an increasing expectation that we should all be able to have the perfect partner, the perfect job, the perfect home, that we should all have manufactured the perfect children in order to be happy and when things don't go according to plan then something is wrong, our life is broken and needs fixing. Although it might be good to set goals but unrealistically high expectations of ourselves and our life are counterproductive and damaging to our mental health. They can stop us from getting even close to our goals, making us feel even more of a failure. A way of preventing this is to be a bit more aware of the fiction of TV, films and social media exploits. Looking at the lives of seemingly perfect people can distort our sense of reality if we're not careful. I get that it's a good idea to try and improve an unhappy marriage or an unsatisfying career, but it's also a good idea to try and be realistic as to what you can expect from these things in the first place. To find that healthy middle ground between expecting too much and accepting too little.
And if you're not sure what is realistic then talk to someone about it. Talk to a close friend or family member about how you feel and see if theres a better perspective and ask them to think critically, to look at what you're asking with some sort of impartiality and not just take your side on things out of solidarity. Ask them to be honest with you. If you have someone that you trust to do this then they could definitely help you get a perspective on what is and is not a realistic expectation.
And like I said, try and lay off certain media outlets or at least be aware of the influence that other peoples lives (whether they're real or not) can have on you. It's not a problem if your family is more like the Simpsons than the Waltons. Or that your relationship is more similar to Basil and Sybil Fawlty than Terry and June.
Even self help books and podcasts can sometimes mix up confidence with happiness. I've come across many books that claim that with nothing but confidence in yourself you can achieve anything, get whatever you want and you shouldn't settle for anything less than the best. Which might Sound OK at first but could so easily lead you unintentionally to more unhappiness and disappointment because of unrealistic expectations.
Theres a line in my book that I often come back to "Paradoxically, it could be that the only reason for you being unhappy is your relentless attempts at trying not be."
Sometimes, we can try too hard to be perfect and doing the right thing for ourselves might actually include lowering rather than increasing our expectations.