I have been involved in several conversations recently about feeling dissatisfied – with our relationships, with events that happen in our lives, with people, with opportunities. I left those situations feeling as if I had been cheated, or at least that I was owed something more. Digging into the core of the dissatisfaction revealed that mostly I had an unmet expectation.

If you’re anything like me, you look forward to your future plans. I dream about the possibilities and then build on those dreamt possibilities into some really great futures. I plan how I will respond to the great things when they happen. I look for other opportunities that I can begin to work on after I complete this step. It’s almost like those things have already happened, even though they’ve only happened in my own mind.

I start to believe that what I am planning is going to happen just as I have imagined it, or that it is already happening. I walk into the situation knowing exactly how it should look, what others will say or do, and how I will feel. The problem is that it (almost) never happens that way. I walk into a situation that is different than I was expecting it to be, and, because I have been planning this out in my mind for so long, I have an impossible time re-adjusting to what is actually happening. This leads to dissatisfaction and a whole lot of internal dialogue that gets in the way of my experience of the moment.

The other part of the problem is that what actually does happen might be better than what I was imagining, and I’ve just missed out on something really awesome because I simply could not appreciate it in that moment. It isn’t what I thought it would be, so I can’t allow it to be good.

I remember being a child and watching commercials for toys that showed all the great things you could do with this toy. The commercials made the children playing with those toys look as if they were having the best time of their lives because of that toy. And they made me believe I couldn’t live without a toy that I didn’t know existed even moments earlier. I would beg and plead for that toy for weeks, or even months. And then it would be my birthday or Christmas or some other special day, and I’d get that toy, and I’d be so excited!

I would immediately open the box and try to do all the cool things the kids on the TV did. And I would be disappointed. Usually the toy did not do what it was supposed to do because it was relying on my imagination to make it fly instead of actually flying or it would have so many little parts that it would break pretty quickly after I started to play or it had to be assembled, and I wanted the toy, not the parts that make up the toy. My excitement would quickly turn to dissatisfaction and looking to something else to make me feel good. And the reminder of that disappointment would stare back at me every day when I looked at the toy.

The funny thing is that my expectations today aren’t that much different than when I was a child. I experience the same disappointment, and my excitement disappears rather quickly when things don’t work out as I expected they would. I look to the next workshop or promotion or paycheck to get me to feel good because of how I build it up.

So how do I get out of the expectation trap? I work hard at staying present. I live this moment as it is, and then the next one and the next one. I plan and dream, but I try not to turn those ideas into expectations. And if I find myself with expectations, I give voice to them so they have less power over me, and I can decide how to work with them. I decide to be open to what happens and relax into the situation as it presents itself.  I have a sense of humor about how utterly human I am.

The next time you find yourself caught up in expectations, I challenge you to try something different and be present with what is instead of what isn’t. Good luck!