Texas roadside attraction

Today’s topic is about expectations. Conflicting views arise – one belief is that we need expectations so that we and others are accountable. The other belief is a more Buddhist perspective about letting go of our expectations to alleviate suffering. What is the deal with expectations, anyway?

Highs and Lows

First, we must remember that having low expectations and having high expectations are still both forms of having expectations. Studies show that students whose teachers have low expectations of them perform at a lower level. Students whose teachers have high expectations of them perform at a higher level. In this regard, believing in peoples’ abilities and having high expectations of them allows them to see themselves in a positive light.


The Buddhist tradition touts the philosophy of having no expectations. The belief is that without expectations, our suffering is alleviated. We’ve all been in a situation where we go to a movie knowing nothing about it. Often, we are pleasantly surprised because we had no expectations at all. When you’ve gotten a glowing movie recommendation, the movie is frequently disappointing because you had expectations of what it would be. Being with “what is” is the key to being present; and being present is the key to equanimity.


What are the types of expectations you have? Have they gone through any reality testing? For example, if you expect a dog to gallop like a horse, no matter how high your expectation is, you will be disappointed – it’s just not a dog’s nature to gallop like a horse. Do you expect life to be fair? That people should reciprocate? That people should read your mind or know how you feel? That people behave rationally? All of these expectations will set you up for disappointment.

Conversely, when you set expectations that are slightly out of arm’s reach, they’re motivating. Do you expect if you run every day eventually you’ll be able to run a 10K race? Do you expect that by practicing an instrument, you’ll be able to play a song straight through?


What do your expectations mean? If you expect your partner to call you five times a day, is it really that you want him or her to call that often, or is it that you really desire s/he expresses to you that you’re important? Is it really about putting the dishes away, or is it about being mindful and respectful of one’s environment? It is really about opening a car door, or is about respect and consideration?

Under Your Control?

There are certain things that are out of our realm of control for the most part, like our boss’ mood, traffic conditions, lines at the bank, train schedules, our genetic make-up, our height, street noise, etc. Anytime we have expectations around these types of things, we will either be surely disappointed or temporarily happy.

Noticing Your Expectations

These are just some questions to ask yourself when you notice expectations come up (of course, we’re always noticing without judgment):

1. Is this expectation realistic? (e.g. When I turn on the faucet the water should run vs. She should know what I’m thinking)
2. Is this really what I expect, or is it code for something else? (Do I want 5 phone calls, or an expression of being important to someone else?)
3. Is this within my control? (Expecting sunshine vs. Expecting to leave my house on time)
4. Is this the right source from which to expect this? (Can I expect galloping from a dog, or it is better to expect it from a horse?)
5. Is this an expectation of myself, or of someone else? (I should be better at managing my money vs. He should know not to ask me for money).
6. Is there any relief imagining not having the expectation? (Being unattached to an outcome, and being curious).

These are just some of the questions to ask yourself to cultivate a deeper awareness of your own expectations. Remember, we are all works in progress! Self-reflection takes time and practice to take hold.