Perhaps you have heard the saying: “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” I believe this slogan, which apparently originated in 12-step programs, contains some useful, practical information for all of us about the psychology of expectations. Its wisdom can be derived by acknowledging two psychological facts:
First, merely expecting something to happen will not make it happen. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted that young children have difficulty distinguishing between the subjective worlds in their minds. and the outer, objective world. According to Piaget, children therefore sometimes believe that their thoughts can directly cause things to happen — for example, thinking angry thoughts about your little brother can cause him to fall down the stairs. Piaget referred to this as magical thinking and suggested that we all outgrow it by around age 7.
It turns out that many normal adults continue to engage in various forms of “magical” thinking. Prayer can even be a form of magical thinking, if it’s founded in my own expectations of God that are erroneous, for example. Witness the huge popularity of The Law of Attraction, which says that our thoughts attract events into our lives. For many of us, it is difficult to let go of the idea that expecting something to happen will make it happen, an adult extension of magical thinking.
Second, human beings have a natural tendency to pin their hopes for happiness on fulfilled expectations. There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, as long as we have good reasons to believe that fulfilling an expectation will make us happy, and we take the necessary steps toward fulfilling those expectations. “Good reasons” might include us knowing from past experience that certain things make us happy. For example, I know from experience that my morning cup of coffee will almost inevitably give me a little bit of happiness. I, therefore, expect this experience each morning. (There is room here for another discussion on “happiness” itself. Is happiness the goal, or perhaps, inner joy or peace?)
The problem of expectation occurs when we expect something to happen without good reasons for that expectation. If I believe that my expectations alone will bring me what I expect, I am using magical thinking and setting myself up for disappointment. This is really obvious when we are talking about coffee. I can’t make a cup of coffee just by thinking it into existence; I have to take the necessary steps to make it happen. I have to grind the beans, put the coffee and water in my coffee maker, and push the button. Just expecting my cup of coffee to appear is delusional.
This is less obvious is when our expectations involve other people. Most of us are sane enough to realize that expecting a cup of coffee to materialize from our thoughts is unrealistic. Yet many of us at some point have mistakenly believed that expecting other people to behave the way we want will actually make them behave that way. One member of a couple might expect the other to make coffee. This is fine and good if the other person is happy to do so. But what happens if the other person has no interest in living up to that expectation? We feel shocked, morally indignant, and resentful. Expectations then, are premeditated resentments.
Expecting life to always turn out the way you want is guaranteed to lead to disappointment because life will not always turn out the way you want it to. And when those unfulfilled expectations involve the failure of other people to behave the way you expect them to, the disappointment also involves resentment.
Why is it that we don’t get upset when a cup of coffee does not make itself, but we might get upset if someone else does not make us a cup of coffee? Where do we get the sense of power to think that merely expecting others to behave the way we want them to will make them behave that way? And what entitles us to get angry at other people when they fail to meet our expectations? Ego? Selfishness? Faulty belief systems? Magical thinking?
Without actually verbalizing expectations about give-and-take in a relationship, people construct stories in their heads about legitimate expectations of each other. So, people in a relationship have a “deal” in which the specifics of the deal are never really talked about. It is hard for someone to live up to your expectations when they don’t know what they are, but you still might see this failure as a violation of your social contract.
Unspoken expectations are almost guaranteed to go unfulfilled. Talking openly about what you expect from other people might improve your chances of fulfillment. At the same time, it is unrealistic to think that merely communicating your expectations clearly is going to get people to behave the way you want them to. This points to a second kind of social contract, one based on authority rather than the mutual reciprocity in a friendship. For example, parents assume that their children should obey their expectations because adults have the authority to run a household.
“Well, isn’t it reasonable for parents to expect certain standards of behavior from their children?” you might ask. I would agree that we should set standards for our children. Failure to do so would make you an irresponsible parent. But you should not expect that your children will follow those standards all the time. Did you follow your parents’ expectations all the time? Has any child? Thinking that this will happen is unrealistic. The question is what to do when children do not follow the rules you have designed to help them keep safe, stay healthy, and grow into their potential. If you think that the answer is to get resentful and angry and to yell and threaten, you might want to consider other alternatives. You can apply this to team members or employees, or associates as well.
‘Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.'” Believing that an unverbalized expectation will bring you what you want is magical thinking and is unrealistic. Expecting that doing what in the past has reliably brought about a result you want is realistic. Expecting others to do what is in your interest, but not their interest, is unrealistic.
After all is said and done, let’s visit “hope”. Hope must also be founded in realistic and/or true things. Let’s look at some examples of “hope” being placed in things involving circumstance and God for example.
Some people think hope is an emotion. “I’m feeling hopeful,” they say, but true hope is a discipline, a determination to believe in God’s reality and power, even when the world seems to be crashing down around you. That is the genius and the power of hope. It flies in the face of calamity, saying, “The world can do its worst to me. But still I will hope. Still I will know that this is the day the Lord has made, and He will take care of me.”
The key to surviving any challenge or crisis is hope. Hope that even though it doesn’t look good right now, I believe it can get better. Hope that the future you place in God’s hands will be better than the present you hold in your own. “’For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Practice this hope. With its power, you can overcome all things. Think in terms of self imposed limitations, fears, self sabotaging thoughts, being controlled by previous outcomes, uncertainty. Hope here can be mingled with faith, which you will remember as we talked about the other day, is the substance of things hoped for. And Proverbs 13:12 says this; “When hope is crushed, the heart is crushed, but when things hoped for come to pass, it fills you with joy.”
Let go of expectations and find something to be grateful about, even when things do not turn out the way you expected, and you will experience serenity, peace, empathy and love, rather than resentment.
BH/John Johnson, PhD.