Tag Archives: perception vs. reality

How Expectations Affect Your Experience

How do expectations in life color your actual experiences? Do you think one has anything to do with the other?

The picture above drove me crazy as a kid – it was in a book we had on optical illusions and while I could see both women in the picture easily, the fact that the picture told you that there were two women in the picture right off the bat gave me the expectation to see two women. This bothered me – I wanted to know what I would see if I hadn’t been told ahead of time that there were two people in the drawing.  Who would I have seen? The “wife” or the “mother-in-law”? No idea but an expectation had been set and I’m pretty sure it affected my experience of the “trick”.

We have expectations for everything in life. Many of them are unconscious ones – we don’t purposely try to set up expectations but it is something that happens over time from early experiences or things that are taught to us. To give you an idea of just how pervasive expectations in our life are, think about a random day in your week.

Before you go to bed at night, you have expectations about how your day will go tomorrow. You have expectations for the quality or quantity of your sleep. You have an idea of what your commute will be like or whether your boss will be in a good or bad mood. A meeting being run by a co-worker who drives you crazy is likely to be a meeting that drives you crazy. A lunch date with a friend you are excited to catch up with is likely to be a happy point in your day. By mid-afternoon you’ve already made an intention as to how your evening will go – maybe you’ve decided to hit a class at your gym or maybe you’ve decided what you need is happy hour and a big plate of wings. You may already be dreading a meeting at your son’s school or a dentist appointment later in the week. Or you may be excited about a concert you’re going to when the weekend finally gets here. Your whole day, week and month is filled with expectations.

Our expectations wholly affect our experience.  And while often our experience is where we developed those expectations in the first place, it doesn’t mean we have to accept every expectation as permanent and unchangeable, especially if it’s inviting a whole bunch of negative feelings and thoughts into our lives. Yuck. Who wants that?  Our brains are incredibly powerful machines and if we repeat a story over and over, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our beliefs influence our behavior – we make choices that can make something true that may not have been likely in reality.  If you want a happier life, you have a responsibility to question the expectations you have that are repeatedly causing unhappiness or negativity in your life.

Expectations that can cause negative experiences
If you see other people as being out to “get you”, if you think that only bad stuff happens to you or that everything in the world is black and white – that’s exactly what you are going to get.

If you think there is a big conspiracy, there is. If you think life is hard, it absolutely is. If you think you don’t deserve love or will never find it, you won’t.

The same can be said for lifestyle or diet changes – if you think you can’t do it, you can’t. If you think it’s too hard, it is. If you think getting healthy, fit or losing weight is for someone else, it is. If you think cooking is a pain in the arse, it is!

If you think everything that happens to you is set in stone and out of your control, it is.

Expectations that can cause positive experiences
But the reverse is also true!

If you think most people are generally kind, they are. If you believe that there is a lot of good in your life, there is. If you think you deserve love, you do. If you think working out is worth it, it is. If you think eating healthy can taste and feel good, it will.

If you think you have a choice in creating a life you will love, you do!

Question expectations
We can choose to question the expectation that are causing a negative affect in our life even if most of our previous experiences in that area caused us to have expectation to begin with. We come to accept things as truth, often from just one or two experiences – and that’s not always correct. Questioning the stuff we don’t really need in our lives gives us the opportunity to change it. When we question a belief or expectation, what we are really doing is deciding whether we want to play the role of victim or champion/hero in our lives.

For example, is it really possible that every person in your life is out to “get you”? It’s highly unlikely. What’s more likely is that a past experience has taught you to look for the negative in people close to you (making minor flaws major ones) or by causing you to choose to get close to people who are the type who will take advantage of you. If you expect all people want to see how they can benefit from you, those are the type of folks you will attract into your circle. You can change this story by setting some boundaries. Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t joking when she said “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” No one can take advantage of you if you don’t let them. Set boundaries and start looking for people who want to lift you up.  They are out there – I swear.

Another example, do you really think it’s absolutely not possible for you to get fit?  Why do you think this? Unless you have an extreme medical condition, it’s highly unlikely. What’s more likely is that you’ve tried diets in the past and failed on them because they were either too restrictive or because you weren’t able to follow the plan as outlined for as long as required. Or you couldn’t get fit because you only did exercise that you hated or was too advanced (leading to injury). This type of thinking (that it’s not possible for you) often leads to poorer health, as our belief that there’s something inherently lacking about us gives us a carte blanche to go to the other extreme. You can change this story by questioning your earlier experiences (ok, did I really try that hard to get fit?  Was I honest about how much effort I put in?) and by choosing more reasonable / less restrictive approaches in the future, so that you can have success and stay on the path for long term.

One final example as to how our expectations can influence reality:  you think you’re going to have trouble falling asleep tonight as you’ve had trouble falling asleep for weeks. While not sleeping is a concrete experience – it usually has a cause that can be mediated. What’s likely happening is you’ve now developed an anxiety or fear around bedtime because of a few sleepless nights, that now leave you too amped up to actually fall asleep, which causes you to have another crappy night, and expect yet again another crappy night! It’s a horrible cycle to get into.  There are many reasons why we have trouble sleeping – but there are lots of things that can be done to help us get back to sleep.  Maybe because of the anxiety you’ve developed around bedtime you’ve found yourself laying in bed playing with your smartphone until the wee hours.  The light from the phone can actual signal to your brain that it’s not time to sleep – furthering your inability to sleep! You can change this story by questioning all your activities leading up to bedtime (chocolate after dinner? exercise before bed? smartphone?) and by creating a bedtime ritual that allows you to relax (epsom salt bath? breathing exercises? regular book reading?) and by letting go of the fear around it.  It takes some practice (like the other examples) but you can be successful changing this situation.

I urge you to take a look at areas of your life that you have repeated negative thoughts or feeling about and think about how you can change it. Do you want to feel like a victim in your own life (I have no control in this situation.) or like a champion (My actions influence the outcome.)?

I don’t know about you, but I never want to feel like a victim! I want to have good experiences as much as possible and I think deep down you do too.

Are you aware of negative expectations in your life? What do you think you need to do to change this? Share in the comments.