I’d like to take a closer look at something that dominates all of our lives, is mostly unconscious, and leads to all kinds of drama, grievances, and suffering. Can you guess what it is?
It's the phenomenon of expectations. Expectations are a part of the human condition and we all have plenty of them! We expect things of ourselves, of others, and of life at large. We expect our reality to be a certain way and the gap between reality and our expectations is where the majority of the drama and unnecessary suffering in our lives ensues. In fact, expectations have been called “planned resentments.”
Fred Luskin is an accomplished researcher at Stanford University who has done a lot of work around grievances, forgiveness, altruism, and compassion. Fred talks a lot about the idea of unenforceable rules in his work, which are essentially the same thing as expectations. Each of us has a long list of rules about how our spouses, intimate partners, children and family members, friends, coworkers, mentors, and everyone else in our lives are ‘supposed to' behave. But these rules are unenforceable because people are not controllable. We might momentarily be able to intimidate, passive-aggressively manipulate, or guilt-trip someone into following “our rules,” but in the long run, people are going to do whatever the heck they want to do.
Even ‘Reasonable’ Expectations Are Unreasonable
Certain expectations and unenforceable rules may seem reasonable, but let's explore that for a moment. Let's take romantic relationships as an example. In romantic relationships, we typically have quite a few expectations about how our partner is supposed to behave. For example, we likely expect our partner to be honest, faithful, straightforward, supportive, and so on. These seem like normal, reasonable expectations but if we take a moment to be radically honest with ourselves about the relationships we've been a part of, I imagine most of us would have to own a lot of deficits and gaps in our own adherence to these expectations, and we have likely even broken the most ‘reasonable’ of expectations at times.
The Drama Triangle
Those of you who are familiar with my work know that I use Steven Karpman’s Drama Triangle as a core component within my Radical Responsibility model. Karpman’s Drama Triangle involves three triangulating roles or mindsets: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. These 3 roles are not only played with others, they are played out within our own minds.
When our expectations are unmet, we feel unhappy and slide into a victim mindset. We perceive our unhappiness or discontent to be caused by something or someone outside of ourselves, onto whom we then project the persecutor role. In doing so, we embrace the persecutor role ourselves. Then in an unconscious attempt to avoid our own problems and escape all the icky feelings we have created, we either play the rescuer to ourselves with unhealthy coping and self-medication behaviors, or we look for someone else to rescue us, at least emotionally. This can escalate into full-blown conflict, as we know, with active triangulation and a continual role switching between three or more people playing out a drama in real time.
Even if the drama triangle remains completely within our own psyche, where we circulate between these three roles or mindsets… feeling victimized by others or even by ourselves, persecuting or beating up on ourselves, and rescuing ourselves with maladaptive coping strategies, we are capable of creating endless resentments, self-loathing and suffering. Considering the fact that most of us are walking around with these drama triangles between our ears at all times, it's no wonder our lives and our relationships are so full of drama. And this all ensues in the gap between our expectations or unenforceable rules and reality, as it is, in any moment.
Expectations, Grievances & Suffering
We have this long list of rules and expectations for how people in our lives are ‘supposed’ to behave. And since we can't control those people, that means those rules are absolutely unenforceable. We know that the people in our lives are going to break those rules, so having them is a prescription for our own suffering.
When people fail to meet our expectations, we get upset, we feel wronged, disrespected, or betrayed. We turn this into grievances, which essentially occur because we wanted a ‘yes’ and we got a ‘no’. And we chew on it and nurture it and hang on to it forever. It may be decades later, and the other person probably hasn’t even thought about us in years, and yet we're still grinding away with our grievances! A classic analogy for this, which is attributed to the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu, is that holding on to grievances is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. When we hold onto grievances, the only person who actually suffers is ourselves.
Our Programming is Directing Our Lives
Given how much suffering our expectations are causing us, the logical thing to do is to release them. But it's not so simple. Expectations are a part of the human condition, and most of our expectations are driven by unconscious programming in the form of childhood conditioning, most of which occurred before the age of 7. This programming contains lots of necessary and helpful learning, but it also includes lots of not-so-helpful and even gnarly, dysfunctional conditioning, including generations of unprocessed family dynamics.
Unless we’re really awake, this programming is running our lives 24/7. Driven by this conditioning, which is literal neurobiological programming in our brains, we operate in a very mechanical, reactive manner, mostly unaware of the conditioning causing us to perceive, feel and react the way we do. We tend to think we're walking around as free-thinking, free-willed adult human beings, making autonomous, free, adult decisions all day long. But in actuality, we're living in the interface between our childhood conditioning and the occurrences in the world around us, unconsciously reacting in an almost robotic manner.
The Path to Freedom
We need not feel bad about this situation, about our conditioning or our expectations, as they are a part of being human. However, we also don't need to remain stuck in our automated programming, our drama triangles, and our unconscious, self-generated sufferings. Below are 4 steps you can take to recalibrate your relationship with expectations and become much more the designer of your own programming and the director of your own destiny.
Step 1: Change Your Relationship With Expectations
While we can't rid ourselves of expectations completely, we can reduce them, investigate them and recalibrate how we hold them. Do we hold onto them with dead seriousness? Can we perhaps hold them more lightly with a little more humor? Can we remind ourselves that a lot of our reactions to unmet expectations are driven by our programming and in truth, things aren't so serious or so awful as our programming would have us believe?
Instead of feeling victimized by unmet expectations, we can take interest and curiosity in them. For example, when your partner breaks one of your unenforceable rules, instead of getting upset with them, you can think, “Oh, how interesting that my partner did/said that…I wonder why? I wonder what they are needing? I wonder what is going on with them?”
Step 2: Take Care of Your Own Needs
We all have needs as human beings. We need food, warmth, shelter, relationships, love connection, respect, the opportunity for creative expression, etc. When our needs are met, we have all the warm and fuzzy emotions, and of course, when we perceive our needs are being threatened or unmet, then we have more challenging emotions.
So how can we ensure our needs are met without all the drama and suffering? Meet them ourselves as much as possible. Learning to meet our own needs will allow us to interact with others not out of neediness and entitlement, but rather in the spirit of a genuinely free exchange of generosity which will play out much better for our relationships in the long run. The more self-sufficient we can become, the more we’ll be able to create our needs being met with others in mutually beneficial ways, and the happier we will be.
Step 3: Surrender to the Flow
Training ourselves to accept impermanence and to find flow within it will allow us to avoid a lot of suffering! This one goes hand in hand with being in the now. If we live in the moment and work with things as they are instead of living in the realm of expectations, we can avoid the drama of unmet expectations and the suffering and pain that follows.
In this present moment, we can let go of resistance and choose to step outside of our programmed reactivity to the world around us. We can release our expectations about how people and things should be, accept that “It is, what it is” and in so doing, avoid the drama and turmoil that comes along with reality not ‘cooperating’ with our expectations.
We also need to accept that we can't control anything or anyone. It is with ourselves, our own mindset, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that we have the most control or at least influence. We can embrace ownership for doing the work to reprogram our brains in positive ways and develop a greater capacity to live mindfully and consciously in the moment, relating with reality as it is rather than as we think it should be. A lot of the principles I talk about in my books and coaching videos are focused on stepping into the driver's seat of our own lives in this way with self-compassion and ownership. In doing so, we develop a greater capacity for self-leadership and become a positive influence on others as well.
Step 4: Reflect
I encourage you to spend some time reflecting now on the role expectations play in your life, as knowledge without action is fruitless. Get yourself a journal if you don't have one already, take a few deep, conscious breaths, and start writing down expectations and unenforceable rules you have in some of your primary, personal, and professional relationships. Just write them down without thinking or stopping, and spend some time filling up those pages. Then go back and look at what you have written and inquire into the following:
How often are your expectations met and unmet?
How much suffering do you experience from holding on too tightly to expectations?
How much drama does your reaction to unmet expectations cause?
How much energy do you expend trying to control the people in your life?
Do you want other people to control you?
Considering that people are simply not controllable, could your time and energy be better spent elsewhere?
Given the fact that we humans are all but incapable of consistently meeting expectations, and that they mostly lead to suffering, does it really make sense to have them, much less to hold on to them so tightly?
I hope you found this interesting and insightful and that you'll pull out your journal and do some reflecting. You might try an interesting experiment. Write down your entire list of the unenforceable rules you have for an important relationship in your life and ask the other person to do the same. Then share those lists with each other. You will likely find yourself laughing quite a lot and discover some very helpful insights into the nature of your relationship and how to optimize it for mutual benefit and happiness.