Fuzzy dichotomies, #1

Expectations are the subject of the second new category of posts: fuzzy dichotomies. Fuzzy dichotomies are beliefs which seem infused with truth. But introduce another perspective and my brain is suddenly clogged with dryer lint. What seemed hard and fast, absolute good vs. bad, now calls for further elucidation–to avoid perpetuating a meme.

I’ve long preached realistic expectations as a more reliable path to happiness than pie-in-the-sky wishes. Expecting the unattainable, we end up disappointed. To protect ourselves, we expect nothing and are pleasantly surprised when expectations are exceeded. However, when we aim low, we may limit ourselves or others, living the subtle bigotry of low expectations. Setting our sights on the basement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most of us learned as mere babes to align hope with reality. This lesson often stemmed from a coveted toy, flaunted in Saturday morning commercials. Mine was a fashion doll that magically changed hair color, from blond to red to brunette, all in a 30 second TV pitch. Barbie be damned: I wanted that doll! My hopes were dashed on Christmas day. She had slippery white nylon hair, to be colored with the enclosed markers. To color each strand evenly, I draped her hair over my fingers, which were soon bright red or yellow. The doll’s hair was clown-like at best; not even close to the enticing natural shades on those smooth fake-hair swatches from Clairol color kits on store shelves. Washing her hair out to switch hues meant waiting for her hair to dry, or I’d have a runny mess akin to the tray of watercolors after a painting session. Sigh. I got clever and stuck her under the bonnet of the hairdryer (this was a generation ago, kids, no handheld blowdryers). The heat turned her silky hair to fuzz. Double sigh.

Working with postpartum families, reining in expectations became critical. We expect a brand new baby to fulfill our hearts’ desires. When the crying, breast engorgement, endless poop, and sleep deprivation hit, parenthood ranks tops on the list of failed expectations, staying there for many parents, as this recent article in New York Magazine relates. Parents with unrealistic expectations are most likely to suffer from postpartum depression. I became a zealot for the middle ground.

Reading about the power of positive thinking brought on the brain fog. Expectations are powerful in our health. And consider the perspective of Eastern philosophies. If we embrace what is, rather than yearning for what is not, we will achieve happiness. The Pearls before Swine characters speak up on this.

A recent Psychology Today article by Rebecca Webber looked at five principles endorsed by people who consider themselves lucky. These fortunate souls end up with exactly what they want, versus settling for a mishmash of reworked wishes. The ‘lucky ones,’ according to Webber, expect more, not less. Serendipitous individuals are open to possibility from all sides, saying “yes” to life rather than “no.” They define goals in very flexible, open terms, not strict, locked in criteria. They drift off the path, unearthing surprises. And they embrace failure as an inevitable part of the road to success.

It seems that the fuzz-clearing breeze lies in the specificity of our expectations. The more tightly we define a desire, cramming it with ‘shoulds,’ the greater our risk of disappointment. If we think the party will be ruined unless Glinda shows up, we might miss a wonderful conversation with Elphaba. Broadly expecting goodness, fun, or fulfillment, vs. evil, boredom, or disappointment, we find the positive is made manifest. Perhaps our expectations simply sway our perceptions. Or perhaps we influence the situation to reap desired rewards.

Challenge yourself to expect great things, a cornucopia of satisfaction, rather than honing in on one specific kernel of your dreams. Your chances of fulfillment may soar.

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