I’ll put it bluntly; your expectations are making you unhappy.

Your relationship with your expectations requires self-awareness and balance.

  1. Self awareness is needed in order to understand what we are really expecting from the world, from ourselves and from the people around us. Is it realistic?

  2. Balance is required because our expectations are a lot like porridge in the Goldilocks story. Too much and we become entitled, spoilt and we suffer as a result. Too little and we risk being unable to visualise the future, or we risk becoming lazy and apathetic.

Regardless of whether it’s intentional or not, we all have our expectations. When these expectations are met, we enjoy the positive emotions that come with it. When our expectations are not met, we suffer the negative emotions as a result (anger, jealousy, frustration, bitterness etc).

“Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.”

– Seneca The Younger

In Foundation 1 we explored the Stoic concept of control. We looked at the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who teaches that the only things truly within our control are our thoughts and actions. That’s it.

Your expectations fall under the boundary of your thoughts, and are therefore completely within your control.

When we accept responsibility for what we expect, we take ownership of how much we allow our expectations to affect our well-being.

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Stoicism & Expectation:

Stoic philosophy utilises a tool called Negative Visualisation to harness the power of expectation to help live better, happier lives.

The Stoics would intentionally imagine and expect situations that were far worse than their current condition. They did this to achieve two things:

  1. Negatively visualising the future can help us plan for undesirable events, should they occur.

  2. Thinking about how bad our conditions could be will help you remember that life could always be worse. It helps develop gratitude for what we have.

“I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet.”


These Stoic methods of visualisation helps dissolve the negative emotion cause by unmet expectations.

Someone was rude to you? So what? They have no obligation to behave in a way you approve of. They will behave in their nature. Don’t expect an apple tree to produce oranges. You’ll end up frustrated.

It’s worth me saying that negative Visualisation is not to be confused with catastrophizing. One is a tool used for a purpose. The other is an unwanted runaway of our emotions and anxieties.

Realistic Expectations:

One of the first steps required in dousing the negative effects of our expectations is to make a clear decision about whether our expectations are reasonable or not.

  • Do we expect people to act in ways we agree with? – Why should they?

  • Do we always expect to succeed at whatever we try? – Is that realistic?

  • Do we expect the weather to be nice at the weekend? – Why should it?

Many of our expectations are simply hopes that the world or it’s people shape themselves to suit us. They won’t.

Lets use a traffic jam as an example. Two cars are stuck in traffic on a highway. Both people are on their way to an important meeting.

The first driver does not have a philosophy. They need to be in this meeting. Why is there traffic? They’re going to be late. The driver is angry and frustrated, they honk the horn and gesture at the people in front who don’t move quickly enough. They expect no traffic, they expect to make the meeting, they suffer as a result of their expectations.

The second driver has philosophy. They want to be in this meeting, however the traffic is something outside their control, so they accept it. After all, traffic is part of the nature of driving. It’s unrealistic to expect to drive and never encounter traffic. They spend some time thinking that they could have been in a car accident, they could have broken down, they could be at the back of the traffic. It could be worse. They think of what they can control in the situation and they put on an audio-book to pass the time. They don’t suffer.

The conditions are the same, the responses are different. It’s our responsibility to decide how we see things, how we think about them and how we respond.

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OUR SELF, Others and the World:

Much of the suffering caused by our expectations can be summed up in one sentence: The world and its people will act as they do, not as we expect them to.

On its face, expectation does not seem to be a clear reason to suffer. However, when we dig a bit deeper it becomes more obvious that our expectations can be a huge source of inner turmoil. Expectation creates inner conflict and resistance when the world does not align with what you think it should be.

I like to break this principle down into three main areas:

Expectation on ourselves:

Often we place too high an expectation on ourselves. Especially in our modern world of social media, marketing, and advertising.

We are bombarded with prompts to compare ourselves to others and do more, buy more, be more, have more. This can create a heavy incentive to expect more from ourselves than is reasonable.

When we expect too much from ourselves we risk feeling inadequate, insufficient, unworthy, worthless and in many cases guilty. After all, look at all the success around us, why can’t we be that good? It’s BS.

In reality, most people are just doing their best to get by with what they have. We work, we spend time with our friends, we laugh with our family and we create families of our own. Often this is enough. Very few of us will be millionaires, rock stars, inst-famous or politically powerful.

The motivational speaking culture doesn’t help. We’re told we can do anything, be anything, drive the lambos, and fly the jet. We’re we just have to believe. Many of the people who preach these lessons haven’t been there themselves.

While it is possible to have massive success from hard work, discipline and education, I wouldn’t hang my well-being on it.

It’s worth spending some time away from the phone, the computer and the TV to sit and re-frame some realistic expectations we have for ourselves.

For example:

  • Everyone makes mistakes, I expect I will make mistakes but I also expect myself to take responsibility for them and move forward.

  • There is much in life that is outside my control, I expect that I cannot control everything. However for the things I can control I expect myself to take full responsibility for them.

  • There is huge variation between people, their skill sets, wealth and opportunities. I expect these variations, however I expect myself to use what I have to the best of my ability and accept others for what they are (whether I like them or not).

Expectation on others:

We just mentioned that there is a huge variation between people. From the upbringing we have, the culture, wealth, education, friends and so on. There are billions of us, all with different values, perspectives, beliefs and goals.

This variation in people naturally leads to variation in behaviour, and variation in behaviour will mean that some people will act in ways that others don’t agree with. This is the cost of variety.

Where this causes suffering is when we expect people to behave in a way that’s aligned with what we believe is “right”, “good” or “respectful”. However, people don’t behave based on your individual values, they behave as a result of their own. Expecting otherwise will often lead to other people causing us frustration, anger, jealousy, sadness and a range of other negative emotions.

It is better to expect people to act in alignment with their own nature than it is to expect them to act in alignment with yours.

Expectation on the world:

Finally, we have the world. There are many things in life that we expect; many of us expect life to be fair, comfortable, fun, safe, inclusive etc.

In reality it is none of these things. The world will behave as it has always done; randomly and independent of human expectation.

Things will happen as they do. All you and I can do is focus on ourselves and do the best with what we have.

Aim High:

Optimising our expectations is not the same thing as giving up. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to the fact that life is a cold and unforgiving place in which we have no control.

On the contrary, my friend.

We should have aspirations, inspirations, and ruminations about our potential. We may not have as much control as we initially thought, but life is still an incredible experience. One in which we can thrive and flourish.

Managing expectations is not the act of repressing outlandish goals or sky-high targets. These aspirations often inspire us to to great things. No, managing expectations is the process of seeing things for what they are and accepting them, rather than suffering because they’re not what we want them to be.

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