I had a count-down on my phone showing me the days left to go before I’d be reunited with my family again.
I had always been very independent. The typical kid who begged to be sent to boarding school and loved summer camp. I then studied abroad and later worked abroad for years; I was never one to “miss” home. But 2020 was different. For all of us.
I had accepted a 6-month work contract at a law firm in Geneva. Tasked with having to find accommodation with just six days’ notice, I ended up renting a room in the home of an elderly lady. Shortly after, covid struck. Every opportunity to socialize and make friends evaporated. And it was just as well, my work schedule was pretty all-consuming. Needless to say, it was a stressful and overwhelmingly lonely six months. I missed my family like I had never missed them before.
I kept replaying our reunion over and over in my head. We were due to meet in Spain in July, so I pictured myself stepping off the bus from the airport and into their arms. I imagined giving each of them a huge hug before walking back to the terrace for lunch; a lunch of all my favorite foods of course — my favorite hummus, my favorite olives, my favorite fruits. No doubt they would have prepared something special, I thought.
When the day finally came, things were very different. My parents had been to IKEA and decided to pick me up on the way back home. They parked on the side of a busy road, called for me to hurry, and welcomed me with a “hey” like they had seen me the day before.
I was underwhelmed. This didn’t even come close to meeting my expectations.
I was upset for the whole day. In fact, I’m pretty sure I held a slight grudge for a few days. My “attitude” in turn put them in a bad mood. They didn’t understand why I was “randomly” upset, and they certainly didn’t understand how it could possibly be their fault.
I thought they had been insensitive. They knew what I had gone through; how could they pick me up on the side of the road like I was running a quick errand? They, on the other hand, thought they were doing me a favor by picking me up; I was being a brat.
Clearly, some self-improvement needed to be done. On both sides. So, we decided to talk about it. The problem was (i) I set high expectations, and (ii) these expectations weren’t met. Firstly, how could they be? I hadn’t told my parents about the reunion I kept picturing in my head. And even if I had, why should they feel obliged to live up to that expectation?
Let go of expectation.
I admit I do it a lot. I set high expectations for myself and I often extrapolate these expectations onto others. I picture the outcome before it’s even occurred, only to feel disheartened when things don’t go to plan. So, one thing I’m learning is this:
Unless you live in complete isolation, in an environment where you have total control (which is seldom the case), expectations are pointless myths; just segments of your imagination that aren’t worth holding onto. But your life is bound to be subject to countless human interactions. And you can’t dictate how other people lead their lives or define the standard they need to live up to.
Of course, a mutual level of understanding is important, and for that, communication is key. But expressing how you feel is one thing. And expecting another to react how you see fit is another. The sooner you let go of the need for the latter, the happier you’ll be.
I didn’t find this easy to do, but it’s become an important part of my self-improvement practice. Because whilst it’s great to be ambitious; nothing in life is guaranteed. And if this year has taught us anything, is that we don’t really have much control at all. So I’ve learned that if we really want to be happy, we need to learn to embrace uncertainty, even when the outcome doesn’t live up to our expectations.
Replace expectation with appreciation.
Thinking about what you already have in a positive light is a way you can begin to even the playing field with the things you aspire to achieve. Because that way, even when the thing you hoped for doesn’t go to plan, you’re still in a good place; the disappointment isn’t so hard to stomach.
Researchers in Positive Psychology have even found that there’s a strong correlation between gratitude and happiness. The logic is that gratitude moves people to experience more positive emotions, improve their health, face adversity, strengthen their relationships and enjoy good experiences; all of which in turn make people happier. And these positive emotions in turn increase life longevity — i.e. being grateful and being happy is healthy!
The way I practice gratitude every day is through the Five Minute Journal. I write down 3 things I’m grateful for every day and 3 things I’m grateful for every night, and it’s a good reminder that even if things haven’t gone to plan, even if it’s been a terrible day, there’s always something, however small to be grateful for.
I encourage everyone to make this mindset shift. To stop focusing on the outcome, to stop expecting and aiming for a particular ‘something’ to happen. Having dreams, and objectives are great. But don’t forget to take stock of the things you already have. Stop to reflect on all the things that are going right with your day, the people you have in your life.
You might not be in the perfect place. But I bet it’s already pretty great.
You might not be exactly where you want to be. But will you ever be?
Only you decide. Why not now?