“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything—anger, anxiety, or possessions—we cannot be free.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Almost universally, many of the problems we face in life are tied to our own expectations. Expectations of ourselves. Expectations of others. Expectations of situations. Expectations of the world at large.
We may expect ourselves to be perfect and successful in all our pursuits. We may expect to feel constantly happy with our lives. We may expect others to think and react like we do. We may expect life to always go to plan, and the world to be uncompromisingly fair.
To be clear, some expectations are perfectly healthy and reasonable. For example, it’s reasonable to expect that the people we love will not intentionally hurt us, or that they’ll care when we share our feelings. On the flipside, it might not be reasonable to expect they will show their care in a specific way, since we are all different.
Holding onto expectations can cause us much harm internally.
It can eat us up, from inside out. It can lead us to frustration, anger, and resentment. We may blame others and ourselves for the way things are. Or perhaps we feel so hurt that we retreat into a shell to try to protect ourselves, withdrawing from those that care about us and the world at large.
We can then become indifferent to all that life has to offer. Flat, uninspired, and deeply unhappy. At their worst, these festering emotions can lead us to some very dark places.
To avoid falling into depression and improve our quality of life, we have to look for ways to let go of our unreasonably high expectations.
This isn’t easy to do, old habits die hard. Letting go of anything can be tough. We grow attached to objects, habits, people, behavior, and everything in between. But it is possible if we practice self-awareness, continually work at letting go, and have patience with ourselves when it’s hard.
Personal Experiences: Expectations of Others That Have Only Hurt Me
Over the years, my expectations of others have brought me much frustration, and some degree of hurt. I’ve left myself open to disappointment when others haven’t seemed to give something that’s important to me equal priority, as I perceive it. As I type this, I realize how trite it sounds. I understand this is entirely about my perspective and expectations, but it’s also something I have had to fight hard against at times.
This outlook has not been reserved purely for those closest to me, either. A former manager (and something of a mentor in a work setting) once said to me, “Carl, you know your problem is you expect too much out of people.”
And in that succinct sentence is a very large element of truth. Something I have had to wrestle with.
I’ve recognized that I hold expectations of others in various circumstances, and it always leads to disappointment. It could be frustration with a good friend for pulling out of plans last minute (even if they had a good reason). It could be a work colleague missing a deadline, that I believe they should have taken more seriously. It could even be related to a stranger not acknowledging the fact that I just held the door open for them.
Any disappointment I feel in any of these cases is entirely about my own expectations. What I expect others to do, or how I expect them to react. Nevertheless, emotions don’t always make perfect sense, so I’ve had to be mindful of when I’m falling into this harmful pattern.
Bizarrely, I can also get frustrated at my own frustration—because I expect myself to be better. I’m someone who values calm in my life and sees himself as being pretty rational and reasonably emotionally intelligent. When I let any perceived ‘infringements’ shake this calm, I inevitably reflect on how far I still have to come.
Self-Examination Without Judgment
Experiences like these, and how I react to them, have made me confront myself.
Why did I feel slighted or hurt? Is it all ego, or is something deeper at play? If there is something deeper, what can I do to address the bigger issue instead of stewing in my feelings?
What good did it do me to carry this energy for any length of time? What good would it do my relationships if I voiced my frustrations?
Was I guilty of not walking my talk and acting in an adult fashion? Is this the person I want to be? Can I do better?
Do I expect so much of other people because I expect so much of myself? Would cutting myself some slack enable me to do the same for others?
This self-inventory is an important step for all of us if we wish to develop ourselves in any way.
We all have our strengths, and we all have areas that need attention. Without beating ourselves up, we need to ask some tough questions of ourselves at times. If we want to avoid negative reactions in the future and get better at handling expectations and emotions, we also need to have an understanding of them.
In my case, I’ve realized what a waste of precious life it is to hold onto negative energy. I don’t want to be the person that holds a grudge. I don’t want to carry any anger or resentment with me. I don’t want to be the person that becomes bitter. So now I learn a lesson, if there is one to learn, but then release the negative energy so it doesn’t weight me down.
I’ve realized that some of my frustrations indicate areas of my life that may need attention.
If it’s related to a friend who keeps breaking promises, maybe we just need to broach the subject directly, have an open chat, and clear the air. Or maybe, that’s just not the friend for me. We can grow in and out of relationships, as much as we may attach ourselves to them.
I’ve also realized my ego is often at play in these scenarios. I feel slighted because I take things personally—that someone is cancelling on me, or not honoring something important to me, and therefore, they must not value our time as much as I do. But often, when people disappoint me it has little to do with me and everything to do with their own life circumstances.
This is something I need to watch and work on. I’m far from perfect, but I am getting better, and now less of my behavior is ego-led.
I have also made peace with the fact that I may not always be as Zen as I’d like to be, but that’s okay. My journey is my journey. The important thing is for me to recognize what I am and work on being the best version of me I can be.
Besides, I’m sure even the Zenist of monks are not immune to the odd expectation and frustration, creeping into their day.
I have also tried to develop a practice and habit of gratitude in my life to offset the pain of unmet expectations.
When we feel gratitude, true appreciation and joy for something, it’s hard to stay in a negative space.
Gratitude enables us to celebrate others for who they are instead of vilifying them for not being who we want them to be. We can embrace the fact that we are all different, we are all fallible. We all have our own little weird and wonderful ways. This is what it is to be human. We can choose to judge less. We can choose to accept and move on.
We can choose to let go.
Letting Go Is a Journey
Expectations are a natural part of life. Not all are necessarily negative, but they often need balancing. If our expectations are causing us pain or making us a person we do not wish to be, we must learn to let them go.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey. It means taking the time to ingrain new habits—like self-reflection, ego-challenging, and gratitude—that will support new ways
And paradoxically, sometimes our unmet expectations signal something else we need to let go—like friendships that are consistently draining or a career path that is persistently unfulfilling. This means we need to check in with ourselves occasionally to make sure we’re on the right path for us. And we need to be brutally honest with ourselves about what it is we truly hold dear in our lives.
Letting go not only means confronting ourselves and making challenging choices, it also involves facing down some of our biggest internal fears and perceptions. What we thought we needed may not be what we actually need to nourish ourselves fully. For example, we may realize we need to validate ourselves instead of looking to other people for validation and interpreting every perceived slight as proof of our own unworthiness.
Learning to let go of our expectations is hard, no doubt, but it’s also necessary to maintain our relationships, our peace, and our sanity and become the best versions of ourselves.
Are you ready to let go?