On Expectations

What does the future hold for me? We often ask ourselves this question in our adolescent years, when we experience a sudden avalanche of expectations. How is your GPA? What college will you go to? Are you going down the right career path, and perhaps later, are you happy doing what you do?

Whatever your age may be, I think most of us can agree that expectations about our future can exert a great pressure on us — in the back of our minds, we may hear the voice of a parent, teacher, or boss, pushing us to do better, asking us if our lives are in order. Throughout our lives, some of these figures have set high expectations for us, knowing our full potential — and knowing how to help us overcome the hardship that comes with preparation and sometimes defeat. While they mentor us along the way, they exert a driving force more related to their own hopes and vision than to our own fulfillment.

We rarely think of ourselves as the creators of our own expectations — what we will be doing in five or even 10 years from now? Here’s the thing: There isn’t much we can do about the expectations of others — we either meet them or not. However, when it comes to our own expectations, there is a lot we can do.

Our expectations shape our experience, and vice versa. The way our brains constantly focus on unknown future outcomes can have a great effect on our reality and our perception. So, how can we harness this power to improve our lives?

Unmet expectations can cause a lot of suffering. Think of it as a phantom limb — the sensory illusion experienced by people who have lost an arm or leg. They may still feel their lost limb but often in odd and painful ways — as if the limb is twisted or being strained around them. In the 1990s, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran hypothesized that this sensation was based on the brain’s expectations that we have a body fully intact and under our control — two arms and two legs that we can move at will. Subsequently, the brain gives motor instructions to an arm or leg that isn’t there anymore, and when nothing happens, the neural confusion results in pain.

Long after the opportunities are gone, you may find yourself wondering what would have happened if you took that one job offer, or that one vacation — or if you decided to finish writing that novel.

For the most part, expectations can actually move us to alter our reality. While we cannot grow limbs back, we can create a new set of expectations on our own. Our brains are constantly evaluating who we are by matching our expectations with sensory feedback. A study by the University of California had subjects participate in a virtual reality world. They watched themselves move in a virtual mirror, and could observe how their brains take ownership of their digital avatar. The brain knows this is a computer simulation, but at a more subconscious level, the brain accepts the avatar as its body, moving where and when it’s instructed to.

In other words, it acknowledges: “It’s me.” Research shows that if the avatar is taller, or better looking, or older, this can change who we think we are, and thereby shift our attitudes, choices, and behaviors.

Much like the expectations that live within us and are created by us, in interpersonal relationships, expectations can be a blessing or a curse. When two people’s expectations match, they are filled with joy — living out their dreams together. But when things aren’t quite what you expected, and this happens repeatedly, the relationship may begin to die. We don’t always have to come up disappointed, however. How do we keep ourselves from falling into such a trap?

Ultimately, expectation means attachment. It’s passive. In fact, the word comes directly from the Latin word expectationem, which means “anticipation.” When we expect something, we are emotionally attached to a particular outcome. So one way to set ourselves free from this attachment and at the same time strive for a better version of ourselves is to put less emphasis on our expectations take in the facts instead, and evaluate those.

As says in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”: “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.” Only once we have accepted our current reality, can we give ourselves the chance to set goals that we choose and act upon until we are able to create new realities.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Fall 2018 issue.

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