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The Perils of Intentions and Expectations

Commitment is the key to achieving your goals, peace, and healthy relationships

"The cause of all upsets falls into one of three categories: undelivered communications, thwarted intentions, or unfulfilled expectations." – Landmark Education

I love this quote, because it plainly states and links together what so many intentions and expectations lead to: disappointment and upset.

That isn’t to say that they always result in negative outcomes or that we shouldn’t have them. On the contrary; intentions are necessary for us to imagine what we want for ourselves and our lives. Expectations are the gauge by which we can measure our progress toward what we set out to accomplish. For example, I intended to write my last book, and expected to do so within a year. And thanks in large part to creating these goals, I accomplished them.

Yet the opportunity and productivity that come from consciously creating intentions and expectations quickly turn into limitations when we, rather than being committed to achieving our aims, become attached to them.

What is the difference?

In simple terms, a commitment to an intention is having the willingness to create a process that supports its achievement, as well as a determination to do your best. Often the intention is met, sometimes it isn’t. In the latter case, one would consider what might have been missing, learn from the experience, create a new intention, and– newly empowered– recommit to its attainment.

Attachment, on the other hand, follows a very different path. While the desire for the intention may be just as strong, the need to achieve it often interferes with doing so. Objectivity, flexibility, and creativity find themselves pushed to the wayside as fixation on attainment, self-validation, and perfection take over.

Returning to the example of writing my second book, commitment inspired me to reach my weekly page goals. Attachment brought on anxiety when I thought I wouldn’t and frustration when I didn’t end up doing so. Commitment allowed me to creatively find time for writing when it seemed I didn’t have any. Attachment led to either forcing myself to write, which dulled my inspiration, or to turn on the TV in resignation for the seeming lack of time.

At this point, you might guess– and can certainly see in this example– that attachment and commitment tend to carry with them certain emotional markers. For me, commitment leads to curiosity, excitement, a sense of play, and determination. On the other hand, attachment brings about pride, anxiety, fatigue, and competition with myself and others. Some variation on these themes is true for most people, explaining the frustration that so often comes when our expectations and intentions are not met or fulfilled.

And it can be the smallest of things! Expecting someone to hold a door for you, intending to go next at the stop sign. The sanest of us are often driven mad when things don’t go the way we want, particularly in areas of our lives that are of great importance: The businessperson who not only wants, but needs to be in charge of the meeting. The singer who not only hopes, but more, has to sound perfect. Both find themselves incredibly disappointed when things don’t go they way they should.

And therein lies the problem. Should is subjective. Opinions, values, and beliefs– as well as intentions and expectations– vary wildly from person to person, making it virtually impossible for others to anticipate what it is we want and expect, much less to fulfill our desires.

Given the anxiety, frustration, and overall ineffectiveness, why in the world do so many of us hold onto these types of attachments?

It’s not always deliberate. As I discussed in my first book The Art of Singing, most fears and insecurities– as well as the attachments and fixations they inspire– are remnants of childhood and survival related concerns that result in a scarcity-based view of the world. Thus, the tenacity with which many of us hold onto so many disempowering ways of thinking and being; it’s not merely about wanting things our way and hoping to achieve our goals. It’s about needing to do so in order to prove to ourselves and others that we’re important, valid, visible, and worthy.

Of course, our adult minds don’t see this. While we certainly still feel the anxieties they inspire, the years have helped to translate our fears and insecurities into intellectual rationalizations, reasons, and justifications for why we should hold fast to our scarcity based beliefs and expectations, including that not doing so would lead to being walked all over or taken advantage of, having to give something up, unjustly defer to others, or more fundamentally, to lose.

This isn’t the case.

Regardless of what our fears, experiences, and cynicism may tell us, holding fast to rigid intentions and expectations does not prevent either the failure of opportunity or the loss of respect, progress, and validation. In fact, it often causes their fulfillment by preventing our ability to effectively and creatively partner with other people.

A look at truly great teams, companies, and relationships demonstrates this. No man is an island, and effective leaders are well aware that isolation and ego-driven independence never lead to innovation. They therefore seek out participation and even partnership from every member of their teams, knowing that the best new ways of thinking, doing, creating, and being are generated thanks to the full and welcome contribution of everyone involved.

For those trapped in the scarcity based model, this probably sounds like a recipe for disaster: opening up and being truly vulnerable and honest lead to backstabbing, infighting, and passive aggression, along with the outright ending or destruction of relationships. Many can’t fathom or imagine any other possible outcome of inviting everyone to share their thoughts and ideas, much less a sense of ownership.

Yet take a closer look. When we are committed to remaining in control and having things go our way, we are actually creating the fertile ground for the very results we’re desperately trying to avoid. More energy goes to managing and manipulating other people than partnering with and learning from them. We spend more time being exhausted than creative, more time focusing our energies inward on perfection rather than on productivity.

Exceptional and enduring success, in any area of life, comes only once we set our pride and insecurities aside– as well as the ineffective expectations and attachments that so often stem from them– and become willing to learn, partner, and co-create with others. When we do, the results speak, and often sing, for themselves.

This article is adapted from Jennifer's latest book: The Art of Singing Onstage and in the Studio by Hal Leonard Publishing.

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