Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?

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My friend was complaining that his neighbor was mean, that he knew this because of the few times he has said hi to her, she rarely replied and when she did, she sounded annoyed. I then had this conversation with him:

mrmackey

Me: “Yes, I used to be annoyed too until I learned to let go of my expectation that everyone should reply.”
Him: “No, I don’t have expectations of people like that.”
Me: “Well, you seem upset about it. Why are you upset?”
Him: “I was taught that when you greet someone, they should greet you back. That is common social decency.”
Me: “So you got irritated because she did not exhibit social decency?”
Him: “Yes.”
Me: “So you expected her to say hi back and when she didn’t, you got annoyed?”
Him (with chagrin): “Yeah, I guess I did have an expectation… but it was drilled into me by my parents.”
Me: “I understand. Most of my expectations came from my parents also.” (Another one to blame the parental units for!)

I believe that letting go of expectations is the key to avoid getting upset or annoyed by the actions of others or even by random events. If you expect your spouse to read your mind, be ready for disappointment. If you expect that life should be fair and bad things happen to you, you are going to be angry. I didn’t discover this principle; it is nothing new and is actually one of the primary teachings of Buddhism (and probably other faiths).

Training Wheels: The Anti-expectation

Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step manual to letting go of expectations. You are told to let go of expectations, but how to go about doing that? There are fortunate people out there who can just decide to let go, but I’m not one of them. I had to come up with my own method.

Because it is easier to replace something than to just get rid of it (leaving a vacuum), I decided that I needed to replace the expectations with something else. Similar to how a smoker would replace cigarettes with a nicotine patch, I decided to replace an expectation with its opposite, an anti-expectation. An anti-expectation is not a low expectation; it goes all the way to the opposite end. Optimists would call it a totally negative expectation; I call it keeping my sanity.

Some examples of anti-expectations:

  • I do not expect people to reply to my greeting or to demonstrate social decency at all.
  • I do not expect my spouse to read my mind.
  • Life is not fair. Sometimes, it looks like life is out to get me.

With high expectations, you’ll be disappointed most of the time. With low expectations, you’ll be disappointed some of the time. With strict anti-expectations, you’ll be occasionally pleased when people and events exceed your anti-expectations. Which kind of expectation would you rather adopt in your live?

For my friend, if he held the anti-expectation that his neighbor would not return his greeting, he can continue to greet her pleasantly, take her non-replies in stride, and occasionally be pleasantly surprised when she greets him back. Maybe, her greeting will be so enjoyable that it will give the rest of his day a positive glow.

If you are married and hold the anti-expectation that your spouse cannot read your mind at all, you’ll assume he or she is as obtuse as a rock (though very lovable) and requires very clear communications. And even when he or she messes up, you are not upset because well, what can you expect? You probably didn’t do a good enough job explaining it. And when they do exceed your expectation by getting it partly right or totally right (pigs are flying), you’ll be so giddy that your feet will not touch the ground for the rest of the day.

If you don’t expect life to be fair, you’ll be the calm at the center of any storm. Tornado throws a tree missile through your living room? Well, you’re just glad no one got hurt. When a cashier overcharges your grocery, you’re glad you only lost a few bucks instead of a million dollars because that could totally have happened! Your coworker, who you think is less capable (though still very likeable), gets the promotion you believe you deserve; oh well, it’s amazing that even one of you minions got promoted and it offers that tiniest chance that life will decide to stop screwing with you and promote you someday… maybe… probably not.

To start, you’ll need to practice identifying the broken expectation when you get disappointed, upset, or annoyed at the actions of others or events. Once you have identified the expectation, you can pretend that you believe in its opposite, the anti-expectation. Mulling over the anti-expectation will then quell the disappointment. (What are you disappointed about? After all, you anti-expected it in the first place. Duh!) With practice (a month or two), this will become a habit. With even more practice (several months), the time between the disappointment and move from expectation to anti-expectation will reduce — until the disappointment, identified expectation, and anti-expectation occur almost simultaneously.

Letting Go (After A Lot Of Hard Work)

Eventually (after half a year to a year of practice), you will find that things which bothered you in the past will no longer disappoint, upset, or irritate you. It would seem as if you have no expectations, that you have successfully let them go (at least for those expectations that you have practiced anti-expectations for). I believe that practicing the anti-expectation will train your subconscious mind to disregard the unmet expectation immediately, so that no emotion response occurs. Letting go of an expectation means that you are no longer affected by whether it is met or unmet.

Unfortunately, learning to let go of one expectation does not automatically get rid of all your other expectations. You will have to put in the work for each expectation that you identify and wish to let go of. Over time, with practice, it should become easier and less time-consuming to do the anti-expectation work.

Great Expectations

I don’t think it is healthy to let go of all your expectations. The expectations you might consider keeping are positive expectations concerning yourself (like achieving life goals) and expectations concerning how others should treat you (they should treat you well). If you keep those expectations, you will want to manage how you react when those expectations are not met or violated. You will want to react understandingly and calmly, while determining your next steps.

The solution is to simultaneously hold both the expectation and its anti-expectation in your head. The practice of recognizing your unmet expectation and then bringing its anti-expectation to mind should hopefully have given you this ability to have two conflicting thoughts at the same time (well, almost at the same time). When an expectation you have decided to keep is not met, the existence of its anti-expectation should blunt any emotional reaction and give you the clear head to decide what to do next.

If you have placed the expectation on yourself to win the gold medal, but end up with the bronze, it’s okay; you’ve tried your best. If a friend consistently mistreats you, you may decide to hold onto the expectation that friends should treat you well and gracefully reduce the time you spend with that friend. The anti-expectations should prevent any regrettable, emotional reaction. You’ll be more understanding and forgiving because you know that you are choosing to hold that expectation for yourself, not anyone else.

The Serenity Prayer authored by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

I think the goal is to not hold expectations that you have no control over (other people’s actions and events) and to hold expectations that you have autonomy over (yourself, how you react to others, and how you allow yourself to be treated by others). I find this way of looking at things very empowering and hope that you will too.

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Ski in Jeans, Run in Tennis Shoes

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matterhornBack in the early 90’s, my college buddy and I decided to go skiing in the Swiss Alps. Never mind that we were beginner skiers, we were confident that we could tackle the Alps. We took a train to Zermatt, rented skis, took the lift to the top, looked in wonder at the nearby Matterhorn mountain, looked at the slopes, asked if we could re-board the lift to go back down, and the man said “the exit lift is 3 miles that way” with his finger pointing down-slope.

I had on my standard protective skiing outfit at the time: a pair of Levi’s jeans, t-shirt, sweat-top, blue-and-hot-pink jacket (from the 80’s), and neon red/pink gloves (also from the 80’s). My buddy had a comparable outfit on. On our best days, we could take a 30 degree slope, but starting from the top, we were looking at 45 degree slopes. Not wishing to die, we decided to sled down on our skis.

After much sledding, a few short bouts of skiing on small slopes, walking awkwardly on flat icy passages, shouting responses of “we’re okay, thanks for asking” to concerned skiers, we finally made it to the exit. We took so long that by the time the lift got to the bottom, it was almost dark. I had five holes in my jeans from the sledding; the two on my derriere were big enough that I had to hide them with my hands on the way back to the hotel.

Later, we found out that we were lucky because it would have been easy to head down the wrong side and end up in Italy (without our passports) instead of Switzerland. Looking back, I see that we were totally overmatched and unprepared, lacking the necessary skills and protective clothing. Still it was great fun once the ordeal was over. Youth are easily amused.

What strikes me is that back then, I was fine skiing around New England in jeans and whatever I had on hand. I didn’t feel the need for specialized winter clothing. Nowadays, I would need to spend several hundred dollars on thermal under-layers, a tri-climate jacket with high-tech materials, and waterproof snow pants before going skiing or snowboarding.

I feel that exercise and recreation have been commercialized, specifically in the expectation that I have to purchase expensive equipment as a prerequisite or precaution. To go jogging, I had better get running shoes that match my foot type and running form to prevent injuries. Back during high school track, I remembered that we had no problems running in tennis shoes (or whatever footwear we had on).

Now, I’m not against getting appropriate equipment if you want to, but I’m against being misled into believing that it is necessary or a safety requirement. Definitely, waterproof snow pants were a vast improvement over water-logged jeans. And if I ran a marathon, I would want the best footwear that I can afford. Or would I? It turns out that expensive, specialized running shoes may be no better, and may even increase the chances of injury, than an inexpensive, neutral pair.

“The First 20 Minutes” book by Gretchen Reynolds is a surprising look at how we exercise based upon the latest research. Reading it has caused me to change many of my assumptions. Here’s what I learned:

  • 150 minutes a week of light exercise (like walking) split into any chunk of time is enough to achieve health benefits. Do more intensity or duration to increase benefits.
  • High-intensity interval training (HIIT) can reduce that time drastically (150 minutes down to 6 minutes of hard exercise a week, not including prep and rest times) while gaining equivalent health benefits.
  • A warm-up (like stretching) before a workout may be counter-productive by tiring out muscles, so do it lightly or not at all. It’s better to just start easy; i.e., walk before you run. Having said that, dynamic stretching to activate the joints specific to the activity (handwalks for tennis) can be effective.
  • Cool-down activity doesn’t lessen soreness. Ibuprofen, massage, and ice bath don’t reduce soreness either, but may actually slow down recovery. Rest from vigorous activity is the most effective remedy.
  • During exercise, drink only when you are thirsty. After exercise, low-fat chocolate milk is better than Gatorade for recovery.
  • Moderate exercise doesn’t rev up your metabolism for the rest of the day; the extra calorie burning ends with the exercise session. And moderate exercise isn’t effective for weight loss because the body compensates with less activity and more appetite/food intake. However, prolonged or painfully intense exercise will maintain the increased metabolism and blunt the appetite, resulting in weight loss. (Moderate exercise is helpful for maintaining weight though. Exercise is also necessary to mitigate the bad side-effects of a low-carb diet like Atkin’s.)
  • Weight training (resistance exercises) improve cardio/endurance performance and vice versa.
  • Core strength (that is, having a six packs) do not improve athletic performance. Repeated bending of the spine can contribute to damage of the spinal discs, so go easy on (or forgo) crunches (or sit-ups).
  • Running is not a problem for many knees; marathon runners continue to have sturdy, healthy joints. However, running (and other intensive sports) does result in significantly more injuries than walking. In fact, elderly people who run lightly to moderately have healthier knees (less arthritis) than those who don’t.
  • Reduce the duration of cramps by stretching the muscle (if you can) and/or taking a shot of pickle juice (no one knows why pickle juice works, but it does).
  • Don’t use foot type as a basis for buying a running shoe because it is not clear that over- or underpronation is the real, underlying issue. Buy shoes that fit and feel right (and do not cause pain or discomfort) regardless of foot type. (The evidence is not solidly for or against barefoot running, so take it easy when transitioning to it.)
  • The biggest predictor of injury is a previous injury, so don’t get hurt in the first place. When hurt, cortisone injections will slow healing; it’s better to do nothing (wait and see) or undergo physical therapy.
  • Exercise is good for the brain, may improve cognitive capabilities, better your mood, and might prevent neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The gist is that if you have not injured yourself with what you are doing for exercise (warm-up, using exercise equipment like shoes, eating/drinking before/during/after, and cool-down, etc.) and are comfortable doing it (no pain), then keep doing it. There is really no conclusive scientific evidence as to the best way to exercise.

Given all the benefits of exercise and really how little exercise we need to maintain our fitness, it is a no brainer to move. Walk a couple blocks to the grocery, take the stairs, park further from the store entrance, mow the lawn, vacuum the house, do push-ups when you are bored … it all adds up.

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