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Making Expectations Work for You

You can’t always get what you want—The Rolling Stones

Years ago we were cleaning up after our older daughter’s fifth birthday party. The last two of our young guests were still sitting at the kitchen table in heated debate. Katherine, curly-haired and free-spirited, was happily singing the lines that Mick Jagger made famous, but every time she sang the line, “You can’t always get what you want,” her more serious five-year-old counterpart, Adrianna, interjected angrily (and when I say angrily, I mean, yelled right in her face as five year olds are wont to do, especially when they are sugar-saturated from birthday cake): “Yes you can!!” Back and forth they went until the parents had to intervene to break up this battle over worldviews.

Out of the mouth of babes.

Out of the mouth of adults.

We’ve all sung those lyrics ourselves, like Katherine, but when push comes to shove and things don’t go our way, we feel incensed, like Adrianna. We should always get what we want! And if we don’t, we want a refund. Too bad there’s no one on the other end waiting to pick up that call.

We are planners. We want to know what the future holds. But when those predictions or preferences turn into demands and ultimatums, we manufacture anxiety for ourselves and the what if’s and catastrophes take over. To avoid setting yourself up for major stress and disappointment with expectations that don’t match reality, learn to find the moving part—you. Rather than wrangle with reality, get flexible and change your expectations.  Here are a few strategies to try the next time you start thinking, I have to have x, or else! Or, He better x, or else!

Control What You Can:

If you want to have more control in your life, make your expectations about things you actually control. Instead of saying, I have to get a job next month, say, I am going to send out 20 resumes, or I am going to follow up on 15 networking contacts. Those are the things that you know you can do. Will it lead to a job by next month? Maybe, maybe not, but it will create momentum and a sense of accomplishment and determination, and that’ what you really need to find a job.  When you set a goal about something you can’t control, you get disappointed and discouraged when it doesn’t happen even though the problem isn’t with you, it’s with your goal.

Make The Covert, Overt:

I wish my husband would help out with chores more, I wish my kids would help out more; I wish my friends made plans more.

I wish, I wish, I wish! Like blowing out birthday candles, no one knows about those wishes except for you—so how can we expect people to come through for us when they really never got the memo. What’s the alternative? If you expect things from others make sure they are in on the plan. Try to put your best foot forward. Rather than whining or complaining, be friendly or simply assertive (which, remember, is different from demanding). For example, if you need more from your family you could say: “I’m feeling really overwhelmed by keeping the house clean and I’d like everyone to pitch in more, because I think you all know what happens when mom is stressed. So, can you each please say two chores you will take charge of each week to help out?” It’s a win-win.

Patience is a Virtue: Dream Big* (Work Small):

Dream big, that’s what we’re told, that’s what we tell our children. But there should be an asterisk after that idea that explains that the way that we realize big goals is by small steps. If we hold out and insist that only the big win will do, well, we’ll be holding out a long, long time. Shift your expectations from the big picture to the smaller to do list. Every big project is made up of lots of smaller projects: a house, a child, a marriage, a job hunt, even tonight’s dinner. When we visualize smaller parts, that gives us options about what part we are ready to work on. If we are stuck on one part of the project, we can put it aside and find the part that we can do—the moving part. Or, if there is a part that we don’t like, we can shift to the part we do.

Try these ideas and with more flexibility in your expectations, in the other immortal words of Mick Jagger, you might just find, you get what you need.