Great (and not so great) expectations

Ah expectations. They’re at the heart of disappointment, but impossible to avoid altogether. They’re lauded as necessary for growth, but they often don’t align with reality. They’re based on personal values and needs, but are often linked to external events or behaviours. And sometimes you only know they exist once they’ve been compromised.

As you can see, I have a love-hate relationship with expectations. On one hand I believe it’s healthy and reasonable to have expectations that go beyond the usual food, water, shelter etc. On the other hand, I know how it feels to be sucker-punched when reasonable expectations are dishonoured.

I chose the word ‘dishonoured’ very carefully here. Some expectations are so reasonable and so deeply held that we might not be aware of them. In these instances, disappointment is not a big enough word to describe the feeling that comes from them being broken.

I experienced this myself when my marriage was under strain. For a time, my now ex-husband and I decided to live in separate homes while we got ourselves back on track. Maybe it was this word ‘separate’ that made his immediate family think we were separated, as in no longer a couple. Whatever the reason – and on more than one occasion despite my efforts to ensure it never happened again after the first time – I was excluded from family functions.

I took this to heart very deeply. In one fell swoop, people who I thought of as my family had undermined my place in their group, my relationship, my sense of worthiness and belonging, more than a decade of dedication and effort on my part, and my right to dictate the terms of my own life decisions.

I’ve since read that any event which brings one’s self-concept into question is traumatic but, at the time, the strength of my reaction came as a surprise to everyone, including me. As strange as it sounds, I didn’t know I held these particular expectations of belonging and validation so deeply until they were dishonoured. While not ignored completely, my efforts to sort things out were met with disinterest and, once we really had separated, only a few of them contacted me to say goodbye. I never received any apology or explanation for this treatment, nor do I ever expect to.

These are events that still sting – and all because of my expectations. Not that my expectations were very great, but I made the mistake of expecting them to behave the way I would have. To my mind, empathy and compassion are not concerned with invalidating people’s experiences or their right to have some agency over their own lives. They do not seek to take pain which already exists and add to it. Instead, they seek to understand and support, even when there is disagreement.

For a while after this I made an effort not to have any expectations of people. It seems silly because it is. The same with the idea that I always have to live up to others’ expectations of me. Neither of these are possible. Or fair.

I look back on that time and wonder if I had the right to expect these things from them. I believe I did, but I have since learned that expectations may be a right, but they are not guaranteed. I learned that people can only give what they have in their possession to give, regardless of how reasonable our expectations of them might be. And I learned that being conscious of our expectations and holding them a little less tightly means we can be prepared for a range of outcomes. Just as the Buddha says:

“the root of suffering is attachment”.

Given all of this, I would say it’s important to temper expectation with acceptance. Acceptance of one’s own expectations and the values that these are built on, rather than trying to deny them or change ourselves for others. Acceptance that others may not share these values and acceptance for whatever follows – be it some kind of compromise or outright loss.

Photo credit: Boldomatic




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Melita Caulfield

Melita believes in living mindfully and authentically which is reflected in her writing and artistic expression.

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