Even coming back from a wonderful ski vacation in Colorado with my family, I struggle with lingering disappointment regarding various aspects of the trip: mediocre accommodations, icy snow conditions, and the feeling of opening your wallet and letting the money pour out. Could the trip have been better? Was my expectation (based on last year’s fab trip) getting in the way of full enjoyment? Why is it that we have trouble letting go of expectations? Should we even try?

The climax of the movie 500 (Days of Summer) portrayed the expectation versus reality dissonance with almost painful-to-watch accuracy. Here’s the video clip [could be a spoiler if you haven’t seen the movie!] with the now much-copied split screen depiction.

And the chasm between the two can be funny as in this series of comparisons from the blog Pleated Jeans [the picture above is courtesy Pleated Jeans too].

In his post, Why We Cannot Perceive the World Objectively on the Psychology Today blog, Michael Michalko discusses how people “construct their own version of reality.”

“One classic experiment to demonstrate the influence of expectations on perception used playing cards, some of which were gimmicked so the spades were red and the hearts black. Pictures of the cards were flashed briefly on a screen and, needless to say, the test subjects identified the normal cards more quickly and accurately than the anomalous ones. After test subjects became aware of the existence of red spades and black hearts, their performance with the gimmicked cards improved but still did not approach the speed or accuracy with which normal cards could be identified.
This experiment shows that patterns of expectation become so deeply embedded that they continue to influence perceptions even when people are alerted to and try to take account of the existence of data that do not fit their preconceptions. Trying to be objective does not ensure accurate perception.”

So if we can’t really TRY to be objective, how do we let go of expectations? Well, a Google search brought up about a zillion posts about “letting go of expectations,” including Buddist and Mindfulness philosophies, but I liked what Rachel’s Musings blog said: “Talk about a tautology! To let go of expectations, let go of your expectations. Well, duh!”

But then she then offers a fairly simple way to separate the expectation (and the disappointment) from the need that fosters it:

“Expectations are tied to a demand of how someone or something should be. Needs are just there. Needs ground us to the present. Expectations take us to the future or into the past. Expectations also tie us to a specific strategy: If a specific person would just act differently, our expectation would be met. If a situation would just be different than it is, our expectation would be met. So, once we notice our anger, we can look at our unmet needs and the expectations that arise with them. Expectations can certainly reveal an underlying need. For example, when i expect a person to respond to a note i left, i have a need for connection. The difference is that a need for connection is independent of the strategy to get it met by that particular person. My need for connection can be met by someone else. My expectation cannot. We are locked into a strategy.”

In the case of my ski vacation, the need behind the expectation is probably a people-pleasing one. I feel responsible not only for my enjoyment, but everyone else’s too. Talk about unrealistic! But now that I see that need, I can foster it separately from my expectations for a ski adventure.

The truth is, I had a really fun vacation. I got to ski on new powder with my husband and two daughters, as well as with some really cool extended family members. I was outdoors in the winter. And I would go back tomorrow (today even!) if it were possible…and that IS reality. 

What about you? Do you struggle with expectations? Do you have a good way to let expectation go so you can live more “in the moment?”