If you are like most people, you want to win the lottery, but you probably don’t buy tickets very often. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you the reason: You don’t expect to win. Given the odds of winning the lottery, that might seem like a reasonable conclusion. What is important to take away from this is that you take action based on what you expect, not what you want. What you want and what you expect are completely different.
An expectation is a belief about whether or not you are going to get what you want.
As a psychologist who studies how people create their futures, one of the things I’ve learned is that having an expectation that differs from what you want isn’t just the reason you don’t buy lottery tickets. It is the reason there are lots of things you want, but you can’t quite seem to attain them—losing that last five to 10 pounds, going for that dream job or relationship. It is the number one reason you stay stuck in life, because:
Expectation + Action = Creation of your life experiences.
I was working with a client recently—I'll call her Amy. She was a gorgeous and successful woman, but she was also sort of shy, very self-deprecating—and she had a history of picking the wrong men.
Amy had recently gotten out of a bad marriage, worked on herself, and was ready to meet someone new, so she decided to try online dating. But she was having one bad date after the next. The men didn’t look like their pictures, they would forget their wallets, some of them didn’t show up at all…
One day, Amy came in and immediately burst into tears. “I had the most awful date of my life.”
How bad was he?
"He was amazing," she said, "absolutely everything I’ve been looking for."
But then she said, "I completely blew it, I was so certain that this was going to be another bad date and a waste of my time that I told him to meet me for coffee after my yoga class. I didn’t have time to shower so I showed up in my gym clothes, hot and sweaty, no make-up…and there he was…Mr. Immaculately Groomed, Tall, and Handsome, with a perfect smile.
"I was so mortified and self-conscious, I couldn’t even make eye contact. I just sat there staring at the floor and laughing nervously, until I told him I had to put more money in the parking meter—and then Ieft—without even saying good-bye."
Amy acted on what she expected—another bad date—not what she wanted, which was to meet a great guy.
I wish I could say this kind of behavior was uncommon, but having been in practice for more than 12 years, one of the most common things I hear from people is: I want to change my life—but I don’t really believe that I can. I’ve seen people give up on marriages, health, and careers—give up on their entire lives—because they didn’t believe they could get what they wanted and so they weren’t willing to try.
There is probably something you want in your life right now but you are holding back because you don’t think you can attain it.
When you don’t act on what you expect, you take yourself out of the game. Buying the lottery ticket doesn’t guarantee winning, but not buying it guarantees losing.
You might wonder: Why do we do this?
Our brains work on the principle of anticipation.1 We constantly predict what we think is likely to happen before it ever occurs. If you are walking in a park and you hear a dog barking behind you and then turn around to see Bigfoot, you are going to be very surprised. As soon as you start to anticipate an event, you start to act and feel in ways that help you prepare for what you think is going to occur. If anyone has ever said to you, "We need to talk," then you know exactly what I mean. When you prepare for something that hasn’t even happened yet, you participate in creating the outcome. In other words, you create the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Because Amy was feeling anxious and ambivalent before her date, she acted on what she expected, not what she wanted. So she got what she expected—another bad date.
One of the reasons our expectations keep us so stuck is that we have the automatic tendency to use the past to predict the future. If you failed once you are likely to think that you might fail again. When you think of the past,2 the same parts of the brain activate as when you think of the future.
However, just because you use the past to make predictions doesn’t mean that your past is what is holding you back.
What was holding Amy back wasn’t her past. It was that she didn’t believe her future was going to be better than the past; and without that belief, she wasn’t able to create something better, even though an opportunity presented itself right in front of her.
If you’re aware of your expectations about a situation, then you have the ability to use your conscious mind to override automatic thinking and plan for a different outcome.
If Amy had planned for her date to go well, things may have turned out differently.
Your expectations about your ability to get what you want have a profound impact on your emotional well-being. A large part of our brain is dedicated to anticipating rewards.3
Rewards, to put it simply, are all the things you want, that make life worth living.
As J.R.R. Tolkien said: “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”
The larger the gap between what you expect and what you want, the more distress you feel.
So, what do you do when what you want doesn’t match up with what you expect? There are only two ways to feel good in this situation:
You can give up wanting what you want—you can convince yourself that it isn’t worth the effort, that you didn’t really want it anyway.
Or, you can change your expectations to match up with what you want so that you can take consistent actions.
How do you do this? There are three steps that can help you begin to shift those expectations. Pause for a moment and imagine a future event that is coming up for you—it can be a goal you are trying to achieve, a work presentation, a holiday get together with your family…now:
1. Ask yourself: How is what I am expecting making me feel? If you are expecting something positive to happen, you will be feeling good about it and you can stop there. No need to fix positive emotions. But if you are expecting something you don’t want, then you are going to feel a negative emotion such as anxiety, fear, dread, or overwhelm. Those are signs you have some negative expectations about the situation.
2. Ask yourself: What would I like to have happen instead? This question identifies what you do want in the situation. What you want is often the very thing that you’re not expecting. Remember, you want to win the lottery, but you don’t expect to.
3. Ask yourself: What do I need to do to make what I want happen? When you are feeling a negative emotion about a situation in the future, it’s because you’re focused on what could go wrong and why it’s not going to turn out the way you want it to. You’re not generating thoughts or ideas about how to make it go right.
When you have a plan in front of you for how to get what you want, your assessment of the situation changes. You begin to see the possibility. This is where the shift happens: Every successful action you take towards that plan starts to change your expectations.
Some of you may be thinking, "I don’t expect this to work for me."
Several years ago, I may not have believed that a simple process could make a difference in people’s lives either. But I was treating a very depressed patient, who I had been seeing for about six months. No matter what we tried, he made very little progress. One day, I asked him: "Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?" He looked at me with the blankest stare I had ever seen.
After that day I started to ask all of my patients this question and I was startled to find that most of them gave me the exact same look. They didn’t dare to dream about how their life could be different, because they didn’t think it was possible.
So I began focusing all of my work on helping my patients change their expectations so that they could find that light at the end of the tunnel.
Five years of research shows that changing your expectations can significantly improve your life,4,5 and I have witnessed some awe-inspiring transformations. The patient I mentioned earlier within a year had quit his dead-end job and started his own successful company. When you motivated yourself by what you want, change is possible.
In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”
Your past isn’t what defines who you are or where you are going. It’s your expectations of the future that limit you most. But here’s the good news: You can choose. You can choose to take action based on what you want. And when you do that, you give yourself the opportunity to step out of the past and create the life that you truly want to live.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.