Saving My Inner Dreamer: How Our Expectations Make Us Sad

I wrote an article a while back about what it was like to be a dreamer, someone who constantly perceives possibility in the most minor occurrences. The dreamer looks at things not only as they are, but as what they can become. I saw a world of romance in the eyes of a beautiful stranger, success in any new creative endeavor, and a future full of happiness in every positive review. My dreams and hopes sustained me, keeping me focused and committed, but things fell apart each time they transformed into expectations.

The dividing line between hoping and expecting is blurry; it’s really easy to find oneself across the border of expectation. And when I do, the result is often disappointment, and sometimes, devastation. Looking back, I’m not sure why I had such exuberant expectations. Things take time, I’m told, but I get tired of waiting. Over the past year, my friend Alen and I started a podcast. And, of course, I had a grand vision of what it could become. As it progressed, that vision became an expectation, and I was quickly disappointed to learn how difficult it was to gain, and sustain, attention. Everything progressed exactly as it should: we had good topics and even better guests. Yet, our listenership was way below what I expected.

And my dating life is similar. I joked with my barber the other day about a girl I started talking to; I told him that she wasn’t what I expected. He told me that people never are because we’re prone to idealization. Reading through others’ stories, I learned that all of us, or most of us, are in the same boat with respect to love. We meet people who appear to be wonderful, and subsequently place our hopes and dreams, and later, expectations, onto them. We disbelieve that they could be anything other than our conceptions. But, friendliness doesn’t equate with kindness and definitely not reliability.

If dreams are catalysts for joy, then expectations are the harbingers of despair. It isn’t that black and white, and the reverse is also true. But this rule holds for a good portion of our lives, especially in our careers and love-lives. Some argue that we shouldn’t have any expectations, which seems reasonable on the surface: no expectations = no disappointment. But, I wonder if it could be helpful to have some, just enough for motivation. If, during a date, you expect to become romantically involved, chances are you’ll feel let-down. But, if you expect to meet someone whom you can possibility learn from, and whose company you’ll (likely) enjoy, chances are you’ll feel fulfilled.

To save the dreamer, I decided to calibrate my expectations to the likelihoods of reality. I still have dreams of what could be when I ask a girl out for dinner. And I doubt I’ll let-go of my hopes for our podcast. But, I’m trying my best to weaken my expectations. Although most of my dates go nowhere, I’ve met some interesting people who helped me begin to overcome my social anxiety, and who’ve taught me about myself. We had wonderful guests on our show whom I would have never met otherwise, celebrated individuals who provided us with a plethora of wisdom. Instead of expecting to be the next Joe Rogan, I try to re-focus on what I learn from Alen and how I’ve improved my camera presence.

None of this is easy, but the alternative is doom. My excessive expectations precluded me from appreciating the goodness of it all. Did any of these things truly make me happy? Yes. But only momentarily, before I began expecting more than I already had. If we could shift our focus to gratitude for what’s in front of us, and our expectations to likely outcomes, we’d maximize our joy. Doing this is a constant chore until, one day, it becomes automatic. For a pessimist like me, it’s a daily struggle. But, if I ever gave it up, despair would become inevitable. Talk about self-sabotage.

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