The Subtle Wobble of Expectation

Last week, a friend shared her favorite quote with me: Expectation is the mother of all heartache.

I thought: Yeah! Right on! Down with expectations!

Live in the moment, right? Make decisions based on what we know now while releasing the belief that we can control the outcome. Allow.

And yet…

I’m reminded of my favorite exercise for writing groups and workshops in which each person writes a sentence and puts it in a pot. Then everyone pulls a random sentence and uses it as the start to a story, poem, or what-have-you.

I’ve written some stuff I really like during these exercises. But what makes this my favorite exercise – and what makes it relevant here – is how surprised I am at where another person took the sentence I wrote.

In my mind, I had no plans for that sentence. It wasn’t culled from a story I was writing; it took no more than a minute or three to write. It seemed to form spontaneously and unrelated to anything, and yet I hear the resulting piece and I inevitably think, “Wow – that is not where I thought that was going!”

Much like you might not be expecting this narrative twist:

Astronomers have recently found planets roughly the size of Earth, not by seeing them directly – they’re too small and too far away – but by detecting the minute effect they have on the star around which they orbit. Tiny little wobbles in gigantic stars let scientists know there’s a planet there…

Expectations are often the same. They have a way of hiding quietly in the hubbub of our daily lives so that we often only recognize them by their impact… which is often considerably more than minute…

I think I was actually all the way in my final semester of college when I had a bit of a meltdown because I realized that I hadn’t made any post-collegiate plan. I hadn’t applied for graduate school, or begun looking for a job related to my psychology major, or done anything beyond perusing the course catalog and signing up for classes that both met my remaining requirements and looked nifty.

I freaked out. I blamed my advisor for not telling me that I needed to actually do something after graduation. I was upset with my parents, both of whom knew what they wanted to do professionally from the time they were tots while I was 22 and flailing. I did a whole lot of crying and ranting.

In retrospect, that was all about me tripping over hidden expectations. I expected that someone else would proactively guide my way. I expected that professional clarity would magically arise from the random array of classes I took. I suppose I even expected that on the other side of the graduation stage was a magic portal through which I would find a profession.

In retrospect, there was nothing to be upset about, but the disparity between my subtle expectations and my reality caused friction, and that heat burned.

The same thing happens in our relationships. We expect colleagues, coworkers, and clients to behave a certain way and are frustrated when they don’t. We expect our lives to unfold in certain ways and feel despondent when they don’t. And good golly, just dip a toe into how those subtle expectations effect our closest personal relationships – whew!

If astronomers find the planets through the solar wobble, what’s the wobble here?

Yup, our reactions. When we’re feeling frustrated, angry, despondent, or reactive in any way, it’s an opportunity to stop and ask ourselves if there’s a subtle expectation at play. It might not be the whole thing – we delightfully complex humans have a wide array of baggage and story to play in, after all! – but expectations sure might be adding a little fuel to the fire.

(Sorry – I wanted it to be something else, too, like blaming someone else or, better yet, a dance party. I’m always down with a dance party.)

And what about after we notice?

Well, we slough off those expectations like a pea coat on a summer day!

Ugh, again, I wish.

Instead, we notice. We acknowledge. We breathe. We try our hardest to offer ourselves compassion.

And then we do it again, starting with noticing.

Or at least that’s what I’m trying to do, friends. This growth process, this moving toward our core selves, it’s not easy or neat or linear.

But it’s might, mighty worthwhile.