Expectations Prove Damaging to Emotional Health

CJ Blair, Columnist

Too often it’s easy to think that what you hope for and what will happen can be the same thing. Everyone is guilty of placing hope in a certain version of the future, expecting to make it real. Expectation sounds pretty ridiculous described this way, but somehow very few people see anything wrong with it. It is a form of selective blindness that can shatter a person’s emotional health, but somehow it’s never talked about, let alone confronted.

I doubt many people share my hostility toward expectation, but I’m certain everyone has suffered its effects. The danger of expectation is that it elicits investment in things that aren’t real. It can make you mourn the loss of something you never had or take for granted something that you do. Of course, there are instances where it’s fairly benign, like expecting presents on your birthday or warm weather in June. However, for each of those harmless cases, there’s another that can be detrimental to a person’s well-being.

Having expectations isn’t necessarily bad, but they shouldn’t be taken so seriously that they’re impossible to forget. The most dangerous expectations are those closely tied to some sort of ambition. In these scenarios, there can be a significant price pinned on achieving a certain outcome. Imagine someone with a 4.0 GPA who is certain they’ll get into grad school or someone who is confident they’ll make friends when they move to a new city. On their own, these feelings aren’t that bad. If anything, they are logical assumptions based on the past or ways to foster a good attitude in a new environment.

The problem lies in the long-term effects of these feelings. For quite a while, I had the strange sense that I was missing something in my life, but I didn’t know what it could be. It wasn’t until I finished watching a film adaptation of Death of a Salesman that I could pinpoint this emptiness. The story focuses on an old man convinced he’s moments away from wealth and respect, while in reality he’s just a salesman. In the final act, he kills himself when he accepts that he will never achieve this dream. While my aspirations aren’t quite so misguided, the message was sobering enough to make me reconsider how I lived my life.

When I came to Oberlin, I had very specific expectations. That’s not to say I was disappointed, but I had a distinct vision of how things would unfold. When something went different than I’d planned, my first response was to ignore it and keep my expectations the same. This applied when I fumbled through an open relationship during my first year and when I tried to throw away my shyness like a bad dream. In both cases, I was disheartened, because I felt I was reaching toward something I couldn’t have. Instead of trying something else, I kept reaching for the same thing, which induced a cycle of sadness and frustration.

I think I’m becoming more aware of when I lie to myself and get too invested in my expectations. But I’ll never completely divorce myself from expectation, and I don’t think anyone else will either. The ability to prepare for events beyond rote survival is a beautiful and uniquely human experience, and it should never be forgotten. What should be discarded is the sense of finality we place on expectation. If something doesn’t work out a certain way, our minds shouldn’t be so resistant to change that we can’t find a way to adapt and be happy.

Whenever I think about expectation, a single line from Death of a Salesman plays in my head: Speaking to his misguided father, Biff Loman says, “Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?” Though few of us are elderly salesmen, we are all people with hopes and feelings, trying to make ourselves happy. When all else is stable, expectation could be the thing making us feel sad when we have no reason to.