“Holidays in general breed unrealistic expectations. The minute you start wondering, is it going to be wonderful enough? it never will be.”
Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., Sociologist and Author.
It was early December of 1978 in Wamego, Kansas. As a young college student from a well to do family prepares to recline on a cold hard cot, the cell door slams shut, resounding within the stone walls of the county jail like a cannon shot. The young man then thinks the obvious thought, “this did not go as planned.” He reflected upon his intention to make good on a $10 bad check written in a haze of alcoholism, the 20 year-old’s emotional state quickly travelled from fear, to anger and resentment against law enforcement officials and a local merchant, to depression that could be summed up with the title of The Beatles’ song “I’m a Loser”. This was the first time that thoughts of suicide entered his head.
What had landed this former honor student in jail? Put simply, it was a bad check that was written 3 months prior and subsequently ignored until the arrest warrant was issued. What was the origin of this array of self destructive emotions? Again a simple answer suffices: unrealistic expectations. If you have not deduced this already, the hapless jailbird was yours truly and I literally laugh out loud now when I think about how unrealistic, if not down right delusional, I was about this situation.
What sane rational person would think this was a good plan for making amends? I walk into a courtroom in a town where no one knows me and speak to a judge that neither knows me nor my family. I proceed to try and convince him that I have no money and if he gives me a few days, I will make full restitution to the merchant and the court. All this was being said in light of the fact that for the past three months, despite notices from the merchant and the court, I had not attempted to make restitution or even make contact with them for that matter. I wonder why he did not go for it.
While holiday planning will not likely lead to jail, it certainly can lead to disappointment and feelings of anger or depression. In the rooms of AA, they have a saying: “unrealistic expectations are rehearsals for resentments.” These days, I find it helpful to realize that, no matter how good my intentions are, I cannot control most outcomes. Powerlessness rears its ugly head once more.
When it comes to expectations, however, we do have some options. Take a look at the following scenarios articulated by Alex Lickerman, M.D. in the March 2010 edition of Psychology Today.
1. Low expectations and a poor experience, where our low expectations can mute the disappointment or even the discomfort we feel at actually having a poor experience.
2. Low expectations but a good experience, leading to a pleasant surprise.
3. High expectations and good experience, in which we get to enjoy not only the anticipation of looking forward to something fabulous but an experience that actually lives up to our expectations and therefore feels thoroughly satisfying.
4. High expectations but a poor experience, in which we often emerge bitterly disappointed or even traumatized.
While most of us have natural and learned tendencies toward either high or low expectations, it is possible to assess a situation and make adjustments in our thinking and stay in reality. We can bounce ideas off friends and set realistic goals and even simplify the event. In doing this we take less of a risk in order to gain the same benefit.