Expectations create resistance. Resistance creates suffering. This blocks us from true happiness and peak productivity. Here’s how it works.
How Expectations Sabotage Your Happiness and Productivity
At a meditation workshop that I attended several months ago, the meditation teacher asked us to share our experiences after the formal sitting practice.
A few of the participants shared their struggles in clearing thoughts or dissolving negative emotions. There was a sense some that they fell short of their expectations of how to sit in meditation practice and what would define success in their practice.
Expectation is a Form of Resistance
In response, the meditation teacher commented:
Expectation is just a form of resistance. And all resistance leads to suffering.
She explained that the objective is just to be aware, to see what is happening.
Change is a result of awareness. You won’t change if you are thinking, “I want to change.”
She also explained that trying to change is also a form of resistance. When we realize that we cannot change this moment, we can begin to surrender.
Transformation isn’t something you actively do; it is something that happens while you watch.
The teacher cautioned that this does not mean you should sit back and avoid taking action in your life. Rather, it is about the internal process: we can watch what happens and become aware of the patterns of triggers and responses.
This insight evoked a chorus of ahas from the group. It was like a huge secret of the Universe had just been revealed.
To me, the statement felt one of those declarations that feels really profound, even before we explore its truth. It seems to fly in the face of conventional personal development wisdom. Isn’t the point of personal growth to change? Isn’t the point of social movements to create change? I felt like my world had been turned upside down.
Never one to take something at face value, I sat with it more, and contemplated what she meant by this and whether it’s really true.
What is resistance?
I travel among a wide range of circles. Depending on the world I’m in, “resistance” is typically defined as either non-acceptance of what is or fear.
Non-Acceptance of What Is
In the mindfulness context, resistance is the desire for something to be other than what it is. It indicates a non-acceptance of the present moment’s circumstances. When we refuse to be with what is, we invite suffering.
Any attempt to change the present moment invites suffering because we cannot change the present moment. It’s already been created. The best we can do is make decisions that impact future moments.
In the world of creativity and achievement, resistance is a fancy word for fear. Achievement and accomplishment oriented people don’t like to use the word fear. It feels weak and uncontrollable. Thanks to Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, we have a stronger word that avoids the f-bomb altogether.
In this context, resistance is a metaphor. It evokes an image of pushing back against a force so great that we must develop the strength to overcome it. This is the war that Pressfield writes about: the war in our minds. Or, as I’ve heard it described elsewhere, the “air war.”
Both meanings take us to the same place …
Resistance in the sense of non-acceptance and resistance as fear feel divergent, but they are really the same. Their commonality lies in story.
We resist our present moment circumstances when we believe a story about what the present moment should look like. Sometimes the story is a culturally-engrained myth, and sometimes it’s a personally developed narrative.
We find ourselves in “fear resistance” when we believe a story about what could go wrong or how we might get hurt in a future situation.
… and that place is not here
In both cases, we are leaving the present moment. These stories about how something should be or how something might be are not truth. They are, to use the language of our time, “fake news.”
This doesn’t mean that the stories we tell aren’t real. In fact, these stories often feel real, and the emotions they evoke are very real.
Meditation teacher Tara Brach writes:
When we are suffering, we are believing something that is not true. To live inside the belief that we or others are bad and wrong is suffering. Rather than directly feeling our hearts and responding to the life around us, we are viewing our lives through an interpretive lens that separates us.
This is Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s concept of Real But Not True. The thoughts are happening, and there is a real physiological effect of them, but they are only in our mind. Our thoughts are not the experience of this living moment.
How Expectation is a Form of Resistance
This brings us to expectation. What do we mean when we say that “expectation is a form of resistance”?
An expectation is merely a story we tell about something. It’s a thought. It might feel real, but it’s not true. It’s not rooted in reality because it’s not in the present moment.
An expectation is a belief based on beliefs.
It is a belief about what will happen, or what someone will do, based on beliefs about “how things work” or who someone is.
When we create an expectation about something — whether a person, an experience, a process, an outcome, or anything else — we close ourselves off to the actual experience of it. We resist the truth of the actual thing.
The moment we define an expectation, it transports us to the future, creating fantasy or fear. Either way, it denies us of the present moment.
And if we are not in the present moment, then we are resisting the present moment. We are resisting the actual experience as it is.
The result is that we become angry, annoyed or frustrated by the experience — we are in suffering.
A fancy word for hope?
It occurred to me that perhaps we can think of expectation as a fancy word for hope.
The only difference between expectation and hope is that expectation makes a pretense of being rooted in logic and reason. Hope doesn’t venture to be so bold.
If you walk into a meeting prepared, you expect it to go well. If you haven’t prepared, you hope it will go well. Behind the word choice is the story you tell yourself — a belief — about what I must do have a successful meeting.
Action: Test this for yourself
I like to test everything, and I encourage my clients to do the same. So try this on:
Think back to the most recent time you got annoyed or frustrated by an experience (I’ll talk about people in a separate article). Maybe you were waiting in line for a long time, or you were stuck in traffic. Maybe your technology wasn’t as fast as you wanted it to be. Or something took longer than you planned.
Once you think of an experience, ask yourself: Why was I frustrated?
You may have several reasons. But if you’re honest (with yourself), underneath them all is likely some form of: “I expected it to be different.” In many cases, in our culture, “different” is some form of faster, taking less time, or more efficient.
Now, you may be thinking: yes, but my expectations were reasonable.
In my experience, it’s our reasonable expectations that lead to the most suffering. Ironically, as I was editing this piece, I found myself in this situation (funny how that always seems to happen). I was frustrated because people were not acting as I expected them to act.
My expectations were that they knew how to do the basics of their job.
Reasonable? I think so.
That didn’t relieve my suffering.
Expectations Sabotage Happiness and Productivity
Expectations really take a toll on our happiness and well-being. I’ve discussed previously how expectations block us from feeling gratitude.
And when we are resisting the present moment, we also block ourselves from happiness and peak productivity. How productive are you when you are hijacked by frustration and anger?
If you want to be at your best, it’s essential to release your expectations. But how?
How to Release Your Expectations and Boost Productivity
Ideally, we wouldn’t create expectations in the first place. But that’s not so easy. We create expectations by habit — without thinking. And, as I discovered today, it’s the reasonable expectations that really sabotage us.
The first step to change is awareness. The simple act of noticing and identifying what is happening will start to shake you of the patterns of resistance and suffering.
Want more detail?
Get my 5-Step Expectations Elimination Process reflection guide!