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Great Expectations: How to Let Go of Unhealthy Attachment and Thrive Despite Disappointment


September 8, 2021

Do you ever get the feeling that you create your own misery through the expectations you hold?

Are you frustrated and feeling let down by life while others seem to have the ideal you crave?

If so, then you’re not alone.

Dr. Steve Maraboli says, “Expectation feeds frustration. It is an unhealthy attachment to people, things and outcomes we wish we could control; but don’t.”

Consider for a moment the expectations you hold in your own life.

Do you dream of finding the perfect partner? Of having the successful high-flying career? Of being able to shop in a certain store or attaining a certain standard of living? Have you held high expectations of your friends or loved ones only to be let down?

The crushing disappointment that comes with having our expectations not met is something we can all relate to at one point or another.  But disappointments also come in other forms such as in working hard to achieve a goal and, once you achieve it, not feeling as satisfied as you thought you would be.

Most people, if you ask them, will tell you that they want to feel happy, connected, peaceful in their lives.  We must recognise that by clutching our expectations close to our chest, we are setting ourselves up for misery and disappointment.

So how do we manage our expectations in life in order to minimise our suffering and maximise our joy?

Read on for my essential tips to navigate the hidden landmines of our unmet expectations:

Where do our expectations come from?

Firstly, it is important to recognise where expectations come from. 

They arise from our parents, the media, our culture and the wider world.  From cradle to grave we are bombarded with messages about what to aim for, how to live and what to aspire to.  These messages cover everything from what success looks like to what kind of partner to aspire to, what car to drive and where our kids should go to school.

When we do the things that we believed would lead to our happiness and don’t deliver, it can be a crushing blow.

Recognise that wherever we picked up your expectation, we alone are responsible for holding them and allowing them to have so much power over us.  Waking up to this can be a painful experience. Have compassion for yourself if you experience a disappointment but remember that you can choose to drop or let go of any expectation that doesn’t serve you. 

I highly recommend for clients to examine all the expectations and goals they have.  Where do they come from?  Anything that comes from outside of you is very likely to leave you feeling unsatisfied.

Control is an Illusion

We love the feeling of setting a goal or having a plan and taking steps to achieve it.  It is very satisfying when it happens and gratifies our ego which thrives on a sense of control.

The truth, however, is a little less than comfortable.

Although we can control our own responses to our life events, our attitudes, thoughts and beliefs, our control in life is limited.

Once we accept that there will always be curveballs and surprises in life, things become just a little bit easier.

For example, many of my clients are single and looking for love.  Society tells us that in order to be happy we must find our perfect partner (our soulmate), get married and live happily ever after.  It’s no surprise then that when people haven’t found this that they feel they have failed in some way or that others are happier than them.

This is a perfect example of how we can be tripped up by expectations.  We really don’t know what is around the corner.  We can want to find a partner, but we have no control over when we are likely to meet them if ever.  If we postpone happiness until our goal is achieved, we fall into the when/then model of happiness which means that we are never happy in the now.

Why oh why do they have to happen?

Being disappointed by unmet expectations, although painful, can be a powerful catalyst for change.  Once you feel the disappointment of discovering your partner’s clay feet, or that the career you worked so hard to establish didn’t bring the satisfaction you were looking for, you are then in a position to discover what real love or your true life purpose is.  Recognise that unmet expectations can be the wake up call we need to discover what we truly want and to become a more authentically empowered person.

Avoid Unhealthy Coping Strategies

We might be tempted to throw a pity party or rage at God or the Universe for our terrible luck.  Often, we sink into depression or use an unhealthy coping strategy to get through it such as reaching for comfort foods, drinking alcohol or engaging in other addictive and unhealthy behaviours.  In the long run, however, these strategies do more harm than good.

It’s okay to feel upset, sad and disappointed by unmet expectations.  We need to allow those feelings and process them fully rather than skipping straight to the lesson learned or the reason why it’s happening.  Unprocessed emotions will leak out into other areas of life and could result in irritability or even an outburst down the line if dealt with appropriately.  Feel your feelings and be kind to yourself in your moments of disappointment.  Speaking to a trusted friend or counsellor or writing about your feelings in a journal are some examples of healthy ways to process difficult emotions.

Expectations are not all bad

Expectations are not necessarily a bad thing and I do not advocate letting them go entirely.  We need some expectations to aim towards and inspire us to greatness. 

Expecting good things from children for example can be a very positive thing- they tend to act up or down to meet the expectations that we hold.

Not all our goals will be met of course and we need to manage our disappointment when this happens.  Having a healthy, balanced approach to our goals (‘sometimes we win, sometimes we lose’) can help.

Expect Less

We cannot control other people but we can control our response to them.

I often find that clients create unnecessary misery for themselves by expecting too much or carrying a sense of entitlement around what they deserve from others.  Entitlement is very off-putting and can actually result in people doing less rather than more.

 I suggest that a better life strategy is not to expect much from others and to show genuine gratitude, delight and appreciation whenever you are pleasantly surprised.  This includes things like birthday gifts, career prospects, engagement rings, what our soulmates will be like.

Where possible, lower your expectations but don’t lower them so much that you forget to dream big, settle for less than you deserve or expect the worst. 

You deserve the best and you can be optimistic yet balanced in your thinking. In addition, it is absolutely important to set exciting goals and work to achieve them- that’s one of life’s great rewards- however make sure that you hold the outcome lightly.  The old Buddhist philosophy of non-attachment to outcomes is useful here, for when we become obsessed, entitled and overly fixated on results, we not only create pain and suffering for us, but we also miss out on the joy of the process in life.  By all means set goals, just don’t pin your happiness to an external goal in the future- the truth is happiness can only be found in the here and now of life for which we should always be grateful.

Achieving Expectations Does Not Necessarily Bring Happiness

We all have had the experience of achieving something we worked so hard for only to be disappointed as the don’t quite feel the satisfaction we had expected.  This is why it’s important to be realistic about the nature of happiness.  It can only be found in the here and now and in the process and unfolding of life.  Be open to being wrong about what would bring true happiness.  Don’t assume others are happier because they have what you desire- they may not be!  The grass isn’t always greener.

Examine the Feedback

It may not feel like it, but disappointment can be a gift.

Often, being disappointed by someone or a situation can give us valuable information about what we need in relationships, what we value or what we might need to pay attention to in order to make a decision.

Take for example the following situation:

It’s your birthday and your partner has given you a very simple gift.  You are disappointed because you spent a lot of time, thought and money on their birthday gift and you feel that this shows a lack of love.

Context is crucial here. While every situation is different, this act, in addition to others which show a lack of care, love and interest, might be grounds to seek another relationship in which your needs are met.  Although unpleasant, this could be viewed as helpful feedback in order to make a decision which could then lead to happier life choices.

For others, it may be more helpful to look at this situation through the lens of compassion. Perhaps this act alone may be forgiveable given a partner’s busy schedule, financial constraints or previous history of making an effort to create thoughtful gifts.  Maybe they just don’t like shopping or don’t place as much emphasis as we do on gift giving. We need to exercise careful and objective judgement in these situations.  It can be tempting to go straight to anger or judgement when things don’t turn out as you had hoped.  Speaking to a trusted outsider can be helpful to gain perspective on such situations.

If you have been let down by someone, it may be appropriate to respectfully assert your rights or make a request of them in a way that is not judgemental or blaming.

Either way, we get to decide!  No incident should be judged alone however without careful consideration.

In conclusion, often we need a wake-up call in the form of frustrated expectations to realise that we have gone off course, to discover what true joy is, to encourage us to build strengths and increased resilience, to kick-start self-love and many other myriad of reasons.  Seen from this perspective, we can see that disappointment is necessary and inevitable part of our human development.

It’s true that nobody likes feeling disappointed and we don’t have to pretend that we enjoy feeling let down however we can mimimise our suffering by holding our expectations lightly, dropping those that do not serve us, embracing the mystery of our lives and by being open to surprises that could lead to authentic happiness.

Sometimes the greatest joys come when we throw out our little book of expectations which can limit possibility. Maybe we don’t know it all.

We may not always get what we want, but we always get what we need.

Does this resonate with you? What have you had to let go of in order to be happy? How do you manage your own expectations?

About Sarah

I’m Sarah, women’s life and wellbeing coach. I am an intuitive, warm & compassionate coach who truly understands the modern female experience and the challenges it can bring

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