On Expectations

In the relatively affluent West there is an epidemic of dissatisfaction. So many of us are plagued by a long-standing, gnawing sense that our lives are a disappointment; that the choices we have made have been the wrong ones; that the person we turned out to be is bitter ode to mediocrity.

Now of course it’s true that some of the choices we make turn out to have painful consequences, and no therapist would argue against working towards growth. And yet the problem of dissatisfaction I frequently encounter in my practice is so often rooted not in the insufficiency of the life being led or the person leading it, but instead in the unreasonableness of our expectations.

More than any other people in any other time and place in history, those of us in the relatively affluent West expect so much out of life. Perhaps this is the impact of living in a market economy, where the product-pusher’s challenge is to convince a sated public that it should be living better. Perhaps, as the psychologist Barry Schwarz has suggested, it’s a function of the sheer abundance of choice we are given, which creates the unconscious, paralyzing notion that, given all that choice and freedom, perfection should be possible. Perhaps it’s a function of the modern therapy culture, where all children are above average and hold the promise of something extraordinary to come. Perhaps it’s the enormously status-conscious, individualistic culture we live in, where we value the hero above all else.

Whatever the reasons, so often we observe with such disappointment this undeniable gap between the reality of who we are and our expectations of ourselves. And so often the efforts we make to bridge that gap are entirely on the side of “bettering” the reality, whether it be through working endlessly on self-improvement, obsessively pursuing power and money and status, desperately searching for the perfect romantic partner, or ceaselessly trying to change the one we already have. Far less do we work on challenging the reasonableness of what it is we (often unconsciously) expect out of life.

Life is up and down. We are flawed. We succeed sometimes and fail others. Some people like us and some people don’t. Our relationships are not perfect and go through peaks and valleys. We won’t always get what we want. Sometimes we feel very unpleasant and base emotions. Sometimes we have thoughts we wish we didn’t have.

I hold that we would do well to shrink the gap between the reality and expectations by squeezing it from both sides. Of course we should continue to grow and self-actualize; we must also become aware of the standards by which we measure how we are doing in this life, standards that all too often are a set-up for great dissatisfaction.