The Cancer of Privileged Expectations
How to kill delusions of getting our way while keeping hope alive
“Life’s under no obligation to give us what we expect.” — Margaret Mitchell
Everyone has their blind spots. Blame nature, nurture, hard-to-break habits. One of my weaknesses is that I conflate hope and expectation.
Just because I really want something and work hard to make it happen doesn’t mean it will. I put too much stock into may and might, like an overly excited kid whose parent says “maybe someday” to her pleas for a puppy.
I don’t realize why I feel depressed until I admit that what I’d hoped for was what I was set on happening. This is embarrassing on a lot of levels.
First, I’m white, not poor, and heterosexual. Being female and politically blue in a red state has its occasional issues but I am certainly among the privileged. Privileged folks have more success in getting what we want.
Second, I’m educated (also tied to privilege), and I should know better. If nothing else, basic probability theory doesn’t change by blowing on dice. My wanting and wishing won’t change snake eyes (pair of ones) into ballerina (two twos).
Third, add to the above certain traits like idealistic, moderately neurotic, an internal locus of control with Type A tendencies and viola!
Is It Just Me? Or Could Our Culture Play a Part?
Decades before The Secret, a 2006 Oprah-lauded book based on the law of attraction, a lot of best-sellers claimed that your thoughts can directly change your life.
The basic formula of expectations = success has been in circulation long before self-help was a genre.
For starters, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich was published in 1937 (it followed Hill’s The Law of Success in 1928). Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, also remains a best-seller.
And before these publications, Calvinism, bootstrapping and rugged individualism played a huge role in America’s lone-wolf hero mythology. Walt Disney’s, “If you can dream it, you can do it” is like saying, “If you want it, believe that you can do it, and you will.” (All of those contingencies depend on you and nothing or no one else.)
We’re culturally set up to think this way. And that’s not going to change, not today anyway. So, what’s the harm in believing? Aren’t positive people, even when they’re a bit delusional, nicer to be around? I’d much rather spend an hour with Ms. Confident and Mr. I’ve Got a Good Feeling than with a real-life Eeyore.
A Little Stoicism Shines a Spotlight
A good read on the lackluster benefits of positive thinking (and mega-motivational conferences that peddle it) is Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking.
Burkeman says it’s not the work toward hoped-for outcomes that gets us into trouble. It’s our tidy expectations of how and when we will be successful that messes us up. The path that ultimately leads to happiness will be paved more smoothly by “embracing imperfection, and easing up on the search for neat solutions.” This stoic path requires that we don’t ignore (or dismiss) that we in fact may not get what we want. And that’s guaranteed by our very mortality.
A Place for Negative and Positive Space in the Same Brain
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
While attitudes influence positive (and negative) outcomes, our thoughts and moods don’t directly lead to those outcomes. Instead, our attitudes and thoughts affect our willingness — the fuel — to keep going and to give our best.
If I’m in a good place psychologically, I tend to work eagerly and I’m more likely to pour more positivity into that work. Which increases the probability of success — but only in terms of what I can control.
Thinking positively does not, itself, cause successful outcomes.
So Do We Try to Get Rid of Expectations or Just Lower them?
Eliminating unrealistic expectations — the hoped for outcome we absolutely and sometimes desperately want—can feel like depriving us of hope’s best case scenario.
The idea is not to dilute what you hope for, but to temper what you expect. Over time, self-imposed high expectations create unsustainable demands on us and others.
By using a simple STOIC reminder, we can temper inflated expectations.
S = Stay focused on balancing your ideal outcome with other realistic possibilities. Thinking about how great it would be if your hopes materialize is certainly okay. But don’t dwell there. Consider other possibilities, including more negative outcomes, including what if things don’t change?
T = Take time to put your life into perspective. What does your hoped for outcome matter in the long run? A practicing stoic would remind us that we’re all going to die someday, which is a way to help us be present right now.
O = Offer thanks. For everything.
I = Invite unexpected visitors:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond. — Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
C = Create more grace for yourself and others. Our very lives are not within our control. We were born into and will leave these bodies — and not according to anyone’s expectations. Including our own.
Don’t Give Up Hope
Adjusting expectations to fit more realistic probabilities is not a “one and done” endeavor. Especially for those of us who confuse expectations with hope. The point is not to dash dreams. Hope is a good thing:
Hope is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die. — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption
And if hope is indestructible, it helps to envision expectations as something fragile that we choose to carry on a long journey:
Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely they were to crack. — Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings
Of course, we don’t have to carry any expectations at all. I’m not sure whether that might be true enlightenment or another unrealistic expectation.