Why Expectations And Disappointment Are Actually Good For You


People always say “no expectations, no disappointments.”

True, but there’s more to it than that. Expectations embody all the vitalizing emotions and sentiments – hope, trust, excitement, anticipation. They also typically entail some acquiescence to vulnerability, a state of being that can definitely be unnerving and exposing. The thing is, it’s not vulnerability itself that hurts or is embarrassing, but rather it is its correlation with the fear that our vulnerability will be taken advantage of. It’s not exposed skin that causes pain; it’s the blade that makes contact.

It would seem that the solution is simple enough: when there are blades around, wear armor; when there aren’t, shed your shields. But life is more complicated than war, and the concern at the root of the “no expectations, no disappointments” mantra is that we won’t always be able to determine when blades are present. The danger in trust and exposure is always there when there is uncertainty. Quite simply, to trust someone, to rely on someone, to believe in the depth of a promise, is a risk.

The hardest part is that even the people with the best of intentions – the people who likely would throw themselves in front of the very blades we fear to protect us – can accidentally hurt us too. In fact, they can hurt us the worst, because it is with them that we have the most skin exposed, that we are at our most vulnerable, most inattentive to where we discarded our armor. Without our guard up, the blow we sustain in disappointment or betrayal or offense is infinitely worse; it catches us unaware and barrels into our chest, knocking the air out of our lungs, somehow simultaneously sending our heart plummeting to the base of our stomach and up into the midst of our throat so our breath entangles with the pulse suddenly in a place it doesn’t belong.

Being disappointed by someone we expected more from is a sinking experience, undoubtedly. If excitement and expectation are a dancing flame, disappointment is the apathetic bully that snuffs it out. There’s no question that it’s a sentiment we all want to avoid. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” bullet, you know that whether on the receiving or dealing end, disappointment can be up there in the ranks of worst emotional injuries that can be inflicted. Though its magnitude varies from slight to extreme, it’s never fun.

All that to say, I get it. I get the desire to avoid it entirely – all of it, throw the baby out with the bathwater on the off chance that this bath water will be poison. But I’ve never been able to go down that road entirely, nor do I want to. I think we ultimately end up sacrificing far more than expectations, and this sacrifice is twofold.

First, where is the joy in a life lacking expectations? Think of the supreme happiness in your most uncalculated moments – in the instances where you dare to be yourself in every crack and corner of your being, for an audience that neither judges nor flinches in reaction to your unembellished, raw existence. That has to be one of the most alive feelings in the world – complete, accepted exposure. The armor is needed at times, and it serves its purpose, but if you wear it all the time… you can’t move as freely, you can’t turn as quickly to catch the fleeting flash of something exquisite, you can’t feel the rush of skin against skin as you hug someone you love, you can’t run as fast or fall as freely, you can’t scratch itches or feel the wind on your skin, and most importantly you miss out on the immense exhilaration of leaving your exposed veins, blood visibly coursing and barely contained beneath your flesh, in the care of a confidante, and emerging unscathed.

I don’t advocate for reckless expectations – but to abandon them in their entirety is too far on the other end. We can use discernment, we can give chances where they seem deserved. It’s always still a risk, but the best scars are the ones that tell a story of injury sustained while loving the way you lived. I have physical scars from basketball – my first love. I will play again and always and until my legs stop functioning. I have physical scars from avocado-pitting stab wounds; I will still make guacamole and put sliced avocado on everything. I have a haphazard assortment of physical scars from living a life injected with motion and dancing and recklessness and adventures and failed efforts and everything that gives a person character. And of course, I have emotional scars from walking out on that daunting ledge, heart in hand, and finding that I’d completely misjudged someone. Those scars tell me I’m strong enough to not be scared to connect. I have emotional scars from hanging out on that same ledge, heart open in the breeze, with people who protect it constantly and still manage to scrape it up accidentally here and there – scars well-earned and well worth it.

Basically, if you never count on people, put your hopes into opportunity, believe in yourself and others, then what’s the point? Expectations and trust don’t have to be all or nothing. If you treat them as such and go the nothing route, you have to live your life at arm’s length, always a full stride away from everything that demands your complete presence to be experienced properly. If you never expect the sun to shine, it won’t rain any less. But if you expect it sometimes, you gift yourself the happiness of those light rays before they even arrive, and honestly life is truly far too fragile and short for us not to allow happiness to thrive in every opportunity.

So expectations have value, and on the other end, disappointment too is important. Like pain, it serves a purpose – it teaches and trains and exposes our own patterns of desire and disillusion to ourselves. There is always more to learn about yourself in order to live more honestly and openly, and disappointment is just one teacher of many. Shed that light over it; you can always cast things under your own light, see your trials through the lens of a perspective endowed with your own personally cultivated positivity. When disappointment strikes, breathe it in, and breathe it out through the filter of growth, which leaves behind nothing but insight. Insight hurts sometimes, but if you live trying to avoid pain, you will avoid a lot of what you love in the process.

Ultimately, expectations are a risk – but so is existence. It can be hollow and detached, or it can be messy and painful and surprising and enlightening and wonderful. Stumbling through all that is essential to growth and endows life with all the punch and poignancy in revelations earned, love lost, and bonds forged. Anything less would be a disappointment.