The motivation for all that we do comes down to wanting only one thing: JOY!
All of our choices and actions are either moving toward joy or away from suffering. It’s hard to feel joy when you’re suffering and hard to suffer when you feel joy. One evening Joeel (my co-conspirator) and I were having a discussion, and we both made a similar comment about needing to let go of “suffering.” Later in the conversation we realized we were coming from totally opposite perspectives. Joeel’s perspective was “I need to let go of the belief that suffering is an expected part of life” and my perspective was that I needed to let go of the belief that “I shouldn’t have to suffer.”
This paradox led me to the realization that suffering is caused by two extremes—low expectations (i.e, life requires suffering) and high expectations (i.e., I shouldn’t have to suffer).
The key to navigating the journey toward joy is to understand the role that expectations can play in your experiences of both joy and suffering.
Low Expectations: Most of us hear a lot about the law of attraction, which teaches us that we attract what we focus on, and that we are in control of what happens in our lives. From that perspective, if we have things in our lives that we do not want, or don’t have what we do want, it is because we have “attracted” them. We may say we want a positive outcome, however we often have a hidden expectation that a negative outcome is more likely to come. We may be pessimistic, always expecting the worst; we may constantly complain about what we don’t like in life; or we may have limiting beliefs that tell us that what we want is not possible. It seems that most people are on one extreme of the spectrum—the one of low standards and expectations.
Most people suffer because they hey expect very little from life—and they get it.
Many modern thinkers and spiritual teachers would suggest these people should change their thoughts, stop complaining, and affirm that they can and WILL have what they really want. Raise your standards! Swing the pendulum to the other side! This may leave them hopeful, empowered, and optimistic as they begin visualizing and affirming with fervor, but sometimes this can backfire; sometimes it works the other way around.
High Expectations: Sometimes, suffering is caused by disappointment—when life doesn’t live up to our high expectations. This can be confusing because the prescription recommended for those with less-than-satisfactory lives is to raise the bar. The problem comes when we set high expectations but we do not truly believe in them. We end up on the other extreme of the spectrum—the side where we expect perfection.
In my teens I was a perfectionist. I was hard on myself for everything, including wanting perfect grades in school. I was fed up when the world didn’t meet my expectations. I was a devout optimist, always expecting the best. I found, though, that my perfectionism set me up for disappointment. For example: When I was looking forward to a vacation, I would visualize it and imagine all of the things I was excited about. The problem was that it never turned out the way I had expected. I ended up being disappointed, which caused suffering. I remember looking back at a vacation I had gone on and realizing that if I had not tried to anticipate it in advance, creating expectations that were never fulfilled, I would have been pleasantly surprised by it all.
It was only my unfulfilled anticipation that caused unpleasant feelings.
So, what did I do? I decided to lower my expectations. I stopped daydreaming. I stopped anticipating the future. I stopped expecting anything from others. I didn’t go so far as to expect the worst or visualize everything going poorly, I just tried on “letting go” and “having no expectations” for size. Unfortunately, over time I did become more and more pessimistic. I told myself that my “unrealistic” dreams were not possible, and so I stopped believing in them. I lowered the bar, and my life suffered as a result.
I know I’m not alone on this. Why do you think so many people think negatively and have low expectations? Some of them were probably programmed that way, ingesting limiting beliefs and doubt offered up by their family and friends during childhood. Others, however, likely started out more like me—with high hopes—only to have them dashed. Then, they turned the other way and lowered their expectations. The pendulum swung to the other side.
Lowering expectations is not the answer, but neither is fantasizing the future or obsessing over perfection. If Life gives you what you ask for, think about, and believe, it certainly makes sense to stay away from the end of the spectrum where pessimism, complaining, doubt, and low expectations lay. But it doesn’t make sense to put all of your effort into trying to visualize your perfect life or affirm to yourself constantly that you can have everything you want without limitations, especially if you do not, yourself, actually believe it. If one extreme doesn’t work, why would we believe the other would?
Why not just let go of expectations all together?
The pendulum doesn’t only rest on one extreme or the other; it swings through all of the middle ground between the two. Stop the pendulum somewhere in the middle; this is where joy is found and where suffering ends. The middle path is where we are all seeking to be—in the zone of no expectations.
When I made the switch from perfectionism and tried on “letting go” for size, I think I was on to something. Ever since, I have kept the practice of going into all vacations without any expectations. I plan the vacation but avoid over-scheduling. I intend and expect to enjoy my time, relax, and explore. Aside from that, I let go, I don’t get too specific. The results are fabulous! My vacations feel like adventures because everything is a pleasant surprise. Because I have no specific expectations I do not feel like I’m missing out on anything. I also find that I am better able to go with the flow in the event that something unexpected happens.
There is peace in having no expectations, in letting go.
The key to this peace is not replacing high expectations with low ones or the other way around—it’s having no expectations at all. The reward for letting go is finding your joy—the joy that was previously out of reach due to the disappointment of perfectionism or the hopelessness of expecting the worst. Of course it’s important to dream your dreams, affirm yourself, and visualize all that your heart longs for, but the most important part is to let it go. Let it go.