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How to Break Free from Unrealistic Expectations for Inner Peace and Serenity

Part 1 of 5: Overcoming Unrealistic Expectations

Photo Credit: ph-m-chung

One of the most disruptive patterns I discovered in early recovery was that I had all kinds of unrealistic expectations - of myself, others and the world. Since this was such an enormous part of my recovery, I’m doing a five-part series on overcoming unrealistic expectations.

I’d heard well before recovery, “expectations are premeditated resentments,” but I had no idea how to NOT have expectations! I just couldn’t wrap my mind around that - how do you live in the world and not have expectations?! Here’s an example from my own recovery journey to illustrate.

At the time I started recovery, I’d worked for my boss for many years. I loved her dearly, and she drove me crazy! I now know that the vast majority of my issues with her were because of my unrealistic expectations.

I couldn't count on her because she frequently didn't do what she said she was going to do. She didn't follow through, and she incorrectly estimated time for just about everything. There was not much she said she was going to do that I could count on.

The thing is, that’s what she was like since the day I met her.

Yet I kept having these expectations that she should be different than that.

Soon into my recovery journey, I came across a reading that helped me with this. The reading mentioned that learning better ways of dealing with other people is a lifelong process and that recovery teaches us things that help, like acceptance.

The writer mentioned having had all sorts of expectations about others’ abilities and behavior, like that they should be competent, capable, and productive, behave rationally and be true to their word. Then the writer said, “These are my expectations for myself, and I've had to let them go for others.” The author went on to say they still get disappointed when someone doesn't follow through, but they don't let it ruin their serenity. 

Whoa! What?! I can have different expectations of others than I do for myself?? And I don’t have to let others ruin my serenity?! This was mind blowing to me! 

What I’ve come to realize is that it may be reasonable in a professional setting to expect people to follow through on what they say they’re going to do. However, if someone has shown you repeatedly that they aren’t going to follow through, then it’s an unrealistic expectation for that person. That is, it may be reasonable and also unrealistic.

This was exceedingly difficult for me to accept, but I eventually did because of the enormous amount of work I did on learning to accept things I previously saw as unacceptable. That had an enormous influence in changing my life.

When I applied the concept of acceptance to the situation with my boss, I was able to let go of the outcome of each situation involving her. That is, I really got, “This is what she’s like – she doesn’t follow through.” No amount of wishing, hoping or manipulating on my part is going to turn her into someone who follows through. 

I was blaming HER for my unrealistic expectations, when she was being exactly the same person the entire time.

The way I tackled letting go unrealistic expectations was kind of like “Monday morning quarterbacking.” I’d look at a situation that upset me after the fact and ask myself, “What went on here?” and I'd realize, “Oh, that was me having unrealistic expectations.” That happened again and again and again.  

That continual reflection sensitized me to the types of situations where I was likely to have unrealistic expectations. That eventually enabled me to see these types of situations ahead of time as opportunities to not have unrealistic expectations - to not be tied to the outcome.

This doesn't mean I don't ever have expectations of people. What it does mean is that when I get upset that things don't turn out the way I want them to, I can say, “Oh I had an expectation there.” As soon as I realize that my difficulty is a result of MY expectation and NOT a result of the other person, it removes any resentment. It also releases any tension I had.

I now understand that if I want peace and serenity (which I do) I can let go of that expectation. I change the way I think about how I think the situation should have turned out. That practice has helped me recognize when I’m forming expectations.

I can’t describe how enormously this practice has impacted my recovery and my peace of mind. Serenity is inversely proportional to expectations and directly proportional to acceptance. So keep your mind ON acceptance and OFF expectations because what you focus on grows (recovery), and what you ignore diminishes (negativity).

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