Not-So-Great Expectations

Lots of our unhappiness stems from our expectations.

It’s a very human habit to form a picture in our minds of how the world should be. And then we sometimes get upset if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.

This is such a common human experience that I catch myself doing it many times, every day.

And that’s the key – catching yourself.

It’s a bit like being Sherlock towards your own thoughts and behaviours. When you’re paying attention, you get a strong gut feeling when you’re acting in alignment with your values… or not.

I’ve found it’s well worth learning to tune in to that little internal voice, it helps you choose between right and wrong (by your own personal definition).

For me, I keep noticing that I unconsciously carry around sets of expectations about other people.

They shouldn’t have said/done that.” Or…

This event must go the way I want it to.”

Bollinger, R (2019) – busy judging other people and trying to control the world.

(Note: sometimes this kind of judgement is entirely appropriate, particularly if the other person’s behaviour is falling short of mutually-agreed standards. But my contention is that judgement like this is usually unhelpful – it’s our attempt to impose our own internal standards onto other people, without their consent.)

When I judge other people harshly, it triggers a feeling of indignant anger. It’s dangerous. Very quickly I find myself wanting to take control of situations, imposing my will and controlling the behaviour of other people.

Fortunately, my self-awareness helps to me to re-centre.

I remind myself of the Stoic belief that I can only control myself, not others.

I take a few moments to pay close attention to what I’m thinking and feeling. I try to carefully choose how I respond, rather than reacting impulsively and fanning those interpersonal flames.

I aim for peace, rather than more conflict.

A Daily Practice

I am definitely not claiming to be an expert at staying calm. But I’m getting better.

It takes consistent daily practice, one small step at a time. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it.

“I’m not trying to be perfect, I’m just trying to improve a little bit each day.”

Bollinger, R. (2019)

A few months ago, in my blog post “Crossing The Bridge” I talked about how I’d discovered that it was self-awareness that’s the crucial ingredient for getting where I want in life. It’s the most important factor in my spiritual growth.

The cognitive technique I’ve described in this post – letting go of expectations and returning to a place of calm – that’s a great example of self-awareness in daily use.

Sometimes the stuff I blog about might seem esoteric or obscure – difficult to implement in daily life. But at their heart, lots of Buddhist and Stoic ideas are eminently practical.

We just have to practice them!

Misery Is Optional

Some days, the Just For Today email from Narcotics Anonymous really hits the nail on the head for me. Today is one of those days.

“I don’t have to be miserable unless I really want to be.  Today, I will trade in my misery for the benefits of recovery.”

– Extract from Just For Today email.

There’s a lot of crossover between the ideas of NA and those in other philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Stoicism. And this is a great example.

Look, I get it: it’s human nature to tell ourselves we are justified in our misery…

Perhaps a political party we despise has just been elected (as will happen for a large proportion of the UK electorate in the next few days). Perhaps our boss at work is treating us unfairly. Maybe we’re suffering from some kind of mental or physical illness.

But I like to remind myself of Victor Frankl and his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor survived the Nazi concentration camps. If anyone had good justification for feeling miserable, it would be him.

And yet – he took control of the way he reacted to his horrific circumstances. He didn’t let them get the better of him.

Can We Help Being Depressed?

I’d like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to depression and suicide. I’ve been depressed on and off for most of my adult life and been close to suicide several times.

When I’m feeling really low, it feels like a kick in the teeth to be told that I should just decide to be happier. It feels ludicrous and absolutely impossible to even try. And I want to punch anyone who suggests it, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

But whilst in the depths of depression, I gradually came to accept an incredibly profound concept:

“Whilst I am not to blame for my depression, there are certain things I can do which can make things better for myself.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

Interestingly, Narcotics Anonymous says something similar about addiction.

Now, as I’ve alluded to above, if you’re currently depressed, often the last thing we want to hear is that we have a responsibility to try to get better. It’s much easier to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Hey, I have an illness. I can’t help it. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

That freedom from responsibility seems appealing, comforting almost – it allows us to take a break from caring. But it’s a silk-lined trap.

“When we recognise that there are ways we can help ourselves, and we’re not condemned to suffer indefinitely, that’s incredibly liberating.”

Bollinger, R. 2019

No Quick Fix

Now, I’m really not saying that a depressed or addicted person can just click their fingers and magically decide to be happy. It’s not that simple.

As any behavioural psychologist worth their salt will tell you: behaviour change is hard. And that’s because we have to build up healthy habits, which takes practice and time.

It takes incremental effort, every day, as we attempt to make our lives just a little better. Just one tiny step forward every day will result in us eventually finishing a marathon.

Actually, it’s even better than that: if you improve 1% every day, by the end of 1 year, you’ll be 37.7 times better than when you started. (I blogged about this idea here).

(Note: not 37.7% better, 37.7 times. That’s 3,770%!)

Your Turn

So, over to you…

What small things are you willing to do, today, which might help you feel less miserable, more fulfilled, happier with your lot in life?

Nooo! I’ve lost my phone!


My heart sank. I couldn’t find my phone anywhere.


Me, eyes wide in terror

The sense of panic was snowballing. Where could I have left it? Did I drop it somewhere?

If I retrace my steps, will it still be where I’ve left it? Will someone have stolen it? Maybe a kind stranger will find it and hand it in to the police. I really hope they do.

How much would it cost to replace? I’m sure it was over £500. And I have no phone insurance. Can I realistically afford to get a replacement?

My internal monologue was fully revved up. My heart was hammering and my breaths were short and fast.

And then I remembered: It doesn’t have to be like this.

I don’t have to feel this way if I don’t want to. I can choose how I think, feel and behave. And that’s all I can do.

I can’t control anything outside myself. What will be, will be.

For a while now, I’ve been learning about Stoic and Buddhist ideas. They share quite a few things in common. I’ve been trying to implement many of their ideas in my life, with some success. Yesterday was perhaps my greatest success yet.

If I’m meant to find my phone, I will find it. Fate has already decided. If my phone is meant to leave my possession now, or if it’s broken, then it was the right time for these events to take place.

What will be, will be, and I can’t affect it.

So, I may as well stay calm and enjoy myself until I’ve finished what I need to do. Then I can calmly and quietly try to find my phone.

And I was calm. And I enjoyed myself. The stress, panic and anxiety just melted away.

I returned home at precisely the time when destiny intended for me to get home.

And there, waiting for me, was my phone.