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Expectation Management

An inescapable challenge and the secret to a better life.

You’re standing in line and someone cuts in. You’re outraged until you notice that they’re blind. You feel guilty until you overhear someone say that he knows this guy. He pretends to be blind to cut in lines. Your outrage returns.

In an ideal world, we would hold everyone to the same performance standards. That’s not our world. We expect the blind not to notice as the sighted do. We expect older drivers to drive slower, younger drivers to drive faster. We expect the anxious to be more sensitive, the mellow to be less sensitive. We expect the education-deprived to think less carefully, and the better-educated to think more carefully. We expect psychopaths and narcissists to be meaner and tender-hearted empaths to be kinder.

In a word, we have to have double-standards or actually a whole spectrum of standards which we calibrate and recalibrate, adjusting what we think we can expect from different people at different times. Especially during times of change, for example, when kids are becoming adults or adults are becoming seniors. It's hard to know what to expect from people in transition. Parents often over-, and under-estimate how responsible their children are. The aging often over-, and under-estimate how aged they are.

But expectation management is a challenge even with people not in transition. Your friend says something you don’t buy. Bite your tongue or speak your mind? It depends on what you think your friend can take. You can insult them either way. Biting your tongue, you humor them which insults their intelligence. Speaking your mind, they could take it as a snub. Guess wrong and they might bite your head off: Why aren’t you more honest? Why aren’t you more tactful?

Life is expectation management. The recurring question is “well, what do you expect?” and it’s not just rhetorical. You really do have to keep trying to figure out what to expect from other people. And from yourself.

Holding high standards is a virtue but then so is lowering your standards. What people call empathy, forgiveness, compassion, sympathy or charity is often, if not always a matter of lowering your expectations of other people. You’d expect him to show up on time, but he has ADHD so, out of compassion, you relax your standards. You make allowances.

Having accurate expectations gives you peace of mind. You’re realistic. You’ve come to expect what is likely to occur. Being comfortable in our own skins is just that – a well-calibrated sense of what you can expect of yourself.

The Buddha offered another route to peace of mind. At least as many interpreted him, he urged us to have no expectations. As such, his teachings boil down to “always expect the unexpected.”

But that’s self-contradictory. A more fruitful reading is that Buddha was saying to relax your expectations to the extent you can. It’s not like your expectations will ever be completely accurate. You’ll find yourself still wanting what is unlikely to manifest. So it goes. Hence our suffering. We’re sometimes disappointed.

But no expectations? That’s impossible for the living and has been since the beginning of life. Every biological adaptation is an embodied expectation, a guess about what an organism can expect from its environment and other organisms, a prediction about “affordances” –exploitable opportunities and how to respond to them.

It's fine to try to expect the unexpected. It’s a nice gesture in the right direction. Still, it’s an overstep in the right direction to pretend you could have no expectations. You’d go crazy. It would be like having no memory, since memory is where we accumulate expectations, both consciously and unconsciously.

We need our expectations, anticipations, and pre-judgments. We want them both realistic and hopeful even though that too is a double standard: Stay positive but realistic. People might bite your head off if you err too far toward either.

Life is a bit like driving a ridge road on a foggy night. On one side you can fall off into expecting people to be able to handle what they can’t; on the other side you can fall off into expecting too little of people. You will make mistakes, hopefully correcting them before you fall too far. But it’s worth remembering. Life is not a train track. It takes careful steering to keep you from falling off toward expectations set too high or too low. You will hit the ridge road's soft shoulders occasionally even though you’re trying to avoid them.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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