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Learning to Deal with Expectations vs. Reality    

Learning to Deal with Expectations vs. Reality

Art by FISK

By Stephanie White

There’s a scene in the movie 500 Days of Summer where Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is so completely stoked to see his ex-girlfriend Summer (Zooey Deschanel) again after all that time they had apart. In a split screen format, we see how he expects it to go versus how it really does, and it hurts to watch. But it’s one of my favorite scenes because we’ve all been there – we’ve all had the fantasy of how we imagine things will go versus how they actually do. Sometimes reality exceeds our expectations, which can be so shocking and lovely, but oftentimes, especially when we don’t manage our expectations, we arrive at a scenario or milestone, carrying an amount of disappointment. Of grief

I’ve started to notice this feeling creeping up on me in ways it never has before. As my close friends get married, buy homes, get promoted, publish books, and have an endless amount of babies, it has been difficult to quiet the comparison noise and stop the doubt from seeping in. The weight of this discrepancy can sometimes feel unmanageable.

It’s a tale as old as time, to be caught up in achieving at the “correct” pace, meeting certain marks at ages I was conditioned to believe we're the right ones. When I was younger, this reality felt easier because life was more mapped out. Back then, it was all about acing tests, scoring goals (okay, this rarely happened), getting into the college of my dreams, and so on. I believed that if I checked all of those boxes on schedule then my life would play out exactly as I had dreamed it would. So for a while, I excelled at excelling and that felt like more than enough. But as I grew from adolescent into fully-realized adult, I learned, like many of us do, that it’s not quite that simple. 

I had a birthday in July and, pandemic aside, I was not looking forward to a celebration. I’ve never been thrilled to have all eyes on me and coordinating something on behalf of myself has always overwhelmed me. As the day approached, friends and acquaintances kept asking “What are you going to do for your special day?” to which I responded, “I’ve got nothing planned.” I wasn’t in the mood to set myself up for disappointment the way I’d done many times before with the big build up to the birthday which always comes with the risk of being let down. This year has been hard enough, right?

But what was really eating at me? I realized I had attached so much to this day. Expectations, not just of how I’d be celebrating or with whom but, rather, where I’d been in my life overall. This was not where I thought I’d be by now, I thought. For so long I’d been “ahead” of other people in the achievement department (or so I told myself) and, now, in my thirties, I felt like I was somehow “behind.” As I sat with that feeling, I challenged myself to think about it differently. What is “ahead” or “behind” anymore? As I grow older, I realize that a lot of my initial goals were arbitrary or based on other people's standards. Of course it can be comforting to feel like there’s a clear path: high school, college, job, boyfriend, marriage, children… death? But when I’m really honest, I know that I’ve never quite fit that traditional mold. Shouldn’t that be a strength? I am at my most powerful when I am living my truth, not my neighbor’s or best friend’s. That means that 2 kids and a well groomed lawn by age 34 might not be the goal. 

Separating my years of expectations from my reality has been a journey that’s not always easy, but I’ve found a few new habits and practices that have helped me make peace with my present. In case you, too, are struggling to come to terms with where you are or wrapped up in the comparison game, I’ve outlined my favorites below.  

Write gratitude lists:

My best friend and I started sending each other these in our mid-20s. We were feeling stuck in our jobs and overall lives and super focused on what we lacked rather than what we already had. So we flipped our narratives and made a pact: to write gratitude lists every morning, no matter what. That often meant writing mine on the subway, sandwiched between a stranger and the sliding glass doors of the train, but it was always worth it. When I focused on the abundance in my life, the tone of my day changed for the better. 

Cleanse your phone:

Deleting Instagram from my phone, even if just temporarily, has benefited me tremendously. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. Do I need to know that my roommate’s ex boyfriend from college owns a yacht and a house in Capri? Probably not! Do I need a play-by-play of my cousin’s home renovation? Not if it’s going to bum me out. When I “cleanse” my phone in this way, I’m able to narrow in on what’s actually bothering me. Are my friends and their more extravagant lifestyles really the issue here? No, it comes down to my own self-worth. By deleting IG for a bit or unfollowing accounts that trigger me to compare and despair, I’m able to hone in on the root of the feeling versus the symptom and focus on fixing that, instead.

Updating my goals:

Isn’t it a bit unreasonable to have expectations for my life if I haven’t set goals for myself? Even if I end up aborting them altogether, the simple act of sitting with a pen and notepad and articulating what it is I’m after helps me keep my expectations in check. For example, if I expect to be a homeowner but my reality doesn’t involve any sort of saving plan or roadmap towards getting there then I need to check myself. Oftentimes, when I’m feeling super obsessed with certain expectations it’s because I haven’t actually checked in with my reality. Goals are projections into the future, sure, but in order to meet them, you’ve got to get focused and specific. This exercise breaks large goals into more tangible steps and gets me excited about what’s to come rather than afraid.

Keep people around who call you out:

It’s important to surround yourself with people who keep you honest, while also reminding you of what’s going right in your life. A few summers ago, when I was trying to move on post-breakup, I escaped the city and headed to my aunt’s beach house for the weekend. I swam in the ocean, went for runs, and sat in the sun with a good book, but I couldn’t shake being super bummed about this dude. One night, my aunt just blurted out, “Are you really this sad about him? Or are you just upset over what the loss of him represents?” I’ll never forget that moment because she truly called me out and it was such a revelation. I realized that while I was mourning the relationship I was mostly angsting over not finding someone new to do life with. Instead of obsessing over this guy, her words helped me refocus on what was really bothering me. In other situations, when I’m spiraling over not meeting a certain mark, my friends are quick to remind me of what I do have. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.