My all-time favorite Shakespearean quote reads, ““Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.”
In other words, all of life’s greatest sadnesses stem from unmet expectations. I like this statement because if you think about it, truer words have never been spoken.
Reflect upon what has made you sad in the past. An argument – disappointing because the other person just didn’t get it. A loss – you expected to spend more time with the person, but now they’re gone. A betrayal – that person was supposed to be loyal to you, but wasn’t. Name a sadness and at the core, I guarantee you there will be an unmet expectation.
If you are a human being, you’ve experienced sadness, and sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint what triggers it. But if you look at your sadness through an unmet expectation filter, it might help you process and understand it a bit better.
Last year, 2020, was by all accounts a year of sadness. Massive numbers of loved ones unexpectedly gone, some very young and full of life. Isolation. Lack of human touch or even contact. Businesses shuttering their doors. The nation dividing. Hateful speech, family members not speaking, and the media exploiting it all. And every single one of these occurrences stemmed from unmet expectations.
So what can you do to mitigate this sorrow that is sure to come? Some people suggest shifting your perspective and not expecting so much from loved ones, from the world, from anyone. Expect less, and you won’t be disappointed, they say. If you’re like me, for example – Type A, driven, motivated – you expect others to be the same. They’re not. The problem is that everyone, regardless of personality, work ethic, or belief system, expects others to be the same. And they’re not.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop having expectations of others. It means you have to stop expecting others to say, act, and believe as you do. This is very, very difficult. It requires you to accept that there’s more than one way to live, and your way may not work for everyone.
This becomes even more arduous when dealing with loved ones. Even if we are tolerant of those outside our circle, it’s difficult to extend the same respect to our family members. I believe this is grounded in our love for them. Because we care for them so deeply, and they us, we develop expectations of what they should do. Unfortunately, people often don’t live up to our shoulds.
And that’s where things really get tough. We find ourselves asking, Why would he do something like that? I’d never do that in a million years. You expected this from him, and unfortunately, you got that. Cue the sadness.
Since we know unmet expectations almost always bring sadness, and we know as human beings we always have expectations, perhaps we might tweak what we expect to avoid unnecessary sorrow.
How do we do that? For starters, know upfront that no matter how much you love somebody, no matter how well and how long you’ve known them, they WILL disappoint you. There is absolutely no escaping it. So if you both ACCEPT and EXPECT that it will happen, it might not hit you like a ton of bricks when it inevitably does.
It helps to understand that most people do not set out to let you down or to make you sad. They are living their life, doing the best they can, caught up in their own weaknesses, and the next thing you know, they hurt you, usually unintentionally and without malice. You have to expect that. If you do, you won’t be blindsided by it or take it quite as personally. It won’t devastate and paralyze you.
Allowing someone to be human and to make mistakes does not in any way make you a doormat or stupid or weak. It makes you human as well. It means you recognize that the other person is allowing you to make mistakes as well. For every person you can name who has disappointed you, I promise you’ve disappointed them in return. Whether they’ve made you aware of it or not, they’ve extended grace to you. They hope you will do the same for them.
Now, you always have the power to walk away, and you should if they let you down more than they support you, if their thoughtless behavior is a pattern rather than an occasional incident, if they are abusive or manipulative, or if their actions consistently take away your dignity or chip away at your character or standards.
Otherwise, try to see unmet expectations for what they really are – your ideal versus their reality. As willing as loved ones may be to give us what we want, they may not always be capable of doing so. The fact that they’d like to, however, is love in its finest form. Concentrate on that, and you’ll face less sorrow.