Take a moment to picture your plans for tomorrow…
What comes to mind?
Maybe you expect to make an omelette for breakfast, then afterward start on some chores or work you’ve been putting off. You might have plans to meet a friend for lunch at your favorite sandwich place, run errands, and even squeeze in a quick workout. Maybe you plan to read in the evening and get in bed early, so that you’re ready to tackle the following day.
Now, what if things don’t go as planned? Would you feel annoyed if you went to make your omelet and realize you’re out of eggs? Would you feel frustration toward that friend if they cancel lunch plans at the last minute? Would you shame yourself if you didn’t make it to the gym because your errands took longer than expected?
I would be surprised if you answered ‘no’ to any of those questions.
In part, these difficult emotions that arise when things don’t go as planned are due to our expectations.
Expectations about ourselves, others, and the world around us are running through our minds on an endless loop.
One reason this can create trouble is that we’re usually unaware of these expectations. Which means we’re also likely unaware of the immense power they can have over our mood, relationships, and ultimately, our experience of life.
Here’s an example I bet a lot of you are familiar with….when someone highly recommends a new or unfamiliar restaurant. They might rave about how ‘incredible’ the food is, that it was the ‘best’ meal they’ve had in years, that you “have to try it”. Nearly every time I have actually gone to eat at one of these restaurants, I have left feeling disappointed. But, I’ve started to realize that my expectations may deserve the blame, not that friend or the restaurant.
Although many of us may have experienced some variation of this, it’s still a bit puzzling what the disappointment is about. It’s possible the restaurant was having an ‘off’ night and your reaction is warranted. But, let’s assume the restaurant is just as described: delicious food, excellent service, relaxing ambiance, etc. why might we still experience disappointment?
What does Research tell us?
In a study conducted by Schultz, W., Apicella, P., & Ljungberg, T. (1993), researchers monitored the neurons in monkeys that are involved in the release of dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter). The monkeys were given fruit juice as a reward for learning a task, and as they consumed the juice researchers observed a significant spike in dopamine production. Because this was the first instance in the experiment in which the monkeys received the fruit juice, it was an unexpected surprise.
Then, expectations entered the equation.
The monkeys were now trained to anticipate the reward; when a light turned on, the monkeys could then press a lever and receive the fruit juice. Researchers observed that in this case the dopamine spike occurred in this space of “anticipation”, before the monkeys actually received the juice. Interestingly, when they actually consumed the juice, there was no elevation in dopamine activity.
Additionally, researchers found that if they turned on the light, the monkeys pressed the lever, but no fruit juice was delivered- there wasn’t just an absence of dopamine activity, there was a deficit.
This study may provide some explanation as to why we are inclined toward disappointment. In that zone of anticipation we actually experience the bulk, if not all of the pleasure of the actual event, or meal, or concert, we’re anticipating. It also shows that when the event comes, we may not feel much pleasure at all. It’s been ‘used up’ before we even get there. And just to twist the knife, if some obstacle gets in the way of the experience, or if it doesn’t pan out as we anticipated- dopamine deficit. Disappointment, frustration, sadness.
Brains are quite the masochists, huh?
Expectations as a Control Strategy
Thankfully, we also have the capacity to understand (on some level) how our brains work and have the power to use this awareness to approach life differently. We can see the ways in which we tend to set ourselves up for disappointment through our expectations, our stories about how things “should” play out. It makes sense that we would try and control the unpredictable realities of life by creating these stories and expectations. This control strategy is a valiant but futile effort. In reality, in our attempts to control, we create dissatisfaction.
It seems logical and helpful then for us to find ways to let go of our expectations, to live in the present.
Instead of extrapolating the past or attempting to predict the future, we may live a much more satisfied and fulfilling life if we focused on cultivating curiosity about the present, future, and even the past.
We could allow ourselves be surprised by the ‘fruit juice’ of life so that we can enjoy it more fully.
I understand, easier said than done.
But, if maintaining a posture of curious awareness of ourselves, others, and the world has so much potential for alleviating disappointment- it might be worth the effort. If you find you have trouble staying in the present moment and tend to ruminate on the past or future, try some of these techniques:
Technique #1 “I notice…”
This involves adding the phrase “I notice I am having the thought…” to your recurring difficult thoughts. Adding this phrase frequently to your repetitive painful thoughts will begin to change your relationship with that thought. For example, “I notice I am having the thought that something bad might happen” as opposed to “Something bad might happen”.
Technique #2 “Thank you Mind”
When your mind generates problematic, self-defeating and painful thoughts, you “thank” your mind in a somewhat sarcastic manner. By doing this, you are acknowledging and accepting the thoughts while also decreasing their power to ‘pull you in’.
Technique #3 Mindful Imagery
Imagine yourself in a forest sitting on a bank next to a beautiful slow moving stream. It is fall and there are leaves floating down the stream. Notice the leaves floating down the stream. Then, pay attention to your thoughts. When a thought (word, picture, memory) pops up, imagine placing it on a leaf floating by. Put the next thought on the next leaf. Try to sit by the stream for at least five minutes and notice the leaves with your thoughts on them float by.
Technique #4 Five Senses
Use this exercise to quickly bring yourself back to the present.
What are 5 things you can see? Look around you and notice 5 things you hadn’t noticed before. Maybe a pattern on a wall, light reflecting from a surface, or a knick-knack in the corner of a room.
What are 4 things you can feel? Maybe you can feel the pressure of your feet on the floor, your shirt resting on your shoulders, or the temperature of your skin. Pick up an object and notice its texture.
What are 3 things you can hear? Notice all the background sounds you had been filtering out, such as air-conditioning, birds chirping, or cars on a distant street.
What are 2 things you can smell? Maybe you can smell flowers, coffee, freshly cut grass, or your soap on your skin. It doesn’t have to be a nice smell either, whatever you can notice.
What is 1 thing you can taste? Pop a piece of gum in your mouth, sip a drink, eat a snack if you have one, or simply notice how your mouth tastes. “Taste” the air to see how it feels on your tongue.
The numbers for each sense are only a guideline. Feel free to do more or less of each. Also, try this exercise while doing an activity like washing dishes, listening to music, or going for a walk.
Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.Earl Nightingale
References: Schultz, W., Apicella, P., & Ljungberg, T. (1993). Responses of monkey dopamine neurons to reward and conditioned stimuli during successive steps of learning a delayed response task. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 13(3), 900–913. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.13-03-00900.1993