The different emotions when expectations aren't met.
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Managing expectations is a big step to living a more peaceful life. If we learn to do so like a Stoic, we can decrease feelings of disappointment, frustration, or even worse. And in the moments when our expectations are exceeded, or things happen in our favor, we are able to show gratitude and appreciation. But doesn’t Stoicism tell us not to expect anything and accept things as they happen? If we manage to eliminate all expectations, then we will be able to stay in the present and deal with what is at hand. But we are mere humans, the sage example is the image of perfection. And I for one, am far removed from this person who sits at the table with the gods.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine the sage and see what we can learn from her. The Stoics describe the perfect person as an example. If we aim for perfection, then perhaps we can improve our lives in the process. Taking myself as an example of someone who is still at the beginning of his journey, we should also look at how we experience it now. There is no need to get frustrated because we are unable to manage our expectations like a Stoic. That’s why it is important to look into how expectations influence our behavior in the present and the future. It impacts the objectivity we need to have to examine the moment and choose the correct course of action. The Stoics give us a way to temper expectations and still strive for what we believe is our duty.

What to wish for

“Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”

Epictetus, The Handbook, 8
What do you wish for?
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Arrian shows us how Epictetus describes the sage when dealing with expectations. Because what are expectations but ideas on how future events or things ought to turn out. Their impact is determined by whether they fall in line with our wants and desires or avoid our aversions. Think of a performance review at work or an experience on a holiday. There are three possible outcomes to both of these evaluations. It either exceeds, meets, or is below expectations. Only one of them is seen as truly good and that is when it exceeds them. Even meeting our beliefs isn’t good enough, that’s what we’ve come to expect. When our employer checks the meets expectations box, there is a slight feeling of disappointment. How realistic is this and are we being honest with ourselves?

The sage does her best in every moment she is given and her expectations fall in line with the present. But still, her human part doesn’t exempt her from dealing with the impulses our bodily existence provides us with. She is, however, able to pause faster and keep her rational mind at the forefront to objectively look at the situation. We might need some more time. And to take that moment, we can go for a walk, take a deep breath, or perhaps we need more time than that. But the wise person expects everything and is aware that only one thing can happen. Then she trusts reason and logic to choose the correct course of action according to the virtues and in line with Nature.

Expectations of the sage

“This is why we say that nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations: we exempt him, not from the accidents, but the blunders that befall men, and everything turns out for him, not as he wished, but as he thought.”

Seneca, dialogues and essays, On the Tranquillity of the Mind, 13

“as the thought.” Isn’t there an element of expectation to be found, even in the mind of the sage? The difference is that the sage can view all possible outcomes and therefore is able to expect everything. We, who stand at the bottom of the stairs looking up at her, do not have such powers. We have to do with what we can imagine and prepare ourselves for the eventualities the best way we can.

The odd one out not as expected.
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This means that we can get it wrong and that we can make decisions that might not have the best outcome. In those moments we need to fall back on our compassion to the self and learn to accept the new situations as it happens. This process we must do over and over again. Each moment, try to learn from it. To see it as the nexus where past and future meet. That little pinpoint where our agency lies.

Expectations beyond control

The more we lean into the externals, the more our expectations depend on factors we can’t control. Which increases the risk of our expectations not meeting reality. If we learn to change our expectations towards what we can control, we can better manage them. This doesn’t mean that we should give up on any future endeavors, it shows us that we should trust more in ourselves. That we have the capacity to deal with whatever fortune has in store for us and grow because of it. However, if we believe in ourselves and focus on judging the moment objectively, then we can increase our possibilities of taking the right action. By doing so, we can mentally strengthen ourselves and make sure we are prepared for any situation that might come.

Rainy day at the beach against expectations.
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There are many levels on which our expectations are tested, and some of them happen without us knowing it. We can be disappointed at work, by friends or family, by random actions, or by the weather. Yet these are all external factors. And if we do feel that our expectations were too high, then we can shift our views from one of disappointment to one of learning. All of these experiences help us become better at managing our expectations. If that friend kept you waiting for an hour, then the next time you meet up with him, you are better prepared for it. Or if it happens multiple times, you can choose not to meet up again. The same goes for any other situation. These are data points that help us make better decisions in the next moment.

Not let these events affect you

But we should learn to not let these events affect us. This is easier said than done, I know that. Yet, we can learn to get over any harsh feelings faster. One of the ways to do so is by accepting the situation. And by reminding ourselves that we are operating from our bubble of knowledge. We do not know the situation of the other side. We should always look at ourselves and stop comparing our situation or making rash judgments. Stoics need to know the truth before being able to make a virtuous decision. Anything can happen in life, it is up to us to learn how to deal with all these variables.

“Remember: you shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs, not the world what it produces. A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 8.15

Stoic reserve clause

How can we help then if we do want to make plans or work towards something? We can build in a reserve clause when we make a statement. Seneca gives us some examples in his essay on the tranquillity of the Mind.

“For the man who busies himself in many things often gives Fortune power over him, and the safest course is to tempt her only rarely but always to keep her in one’s thoughts, never placing any trust in her promises but saying instead: ‘I will make the voyage unless something happens,’ and ‘I will become praetor unless something stands in my way, and ‘My business venture will succeed unless something interferes.”

Seneca, Dialogues and Essays, On the Tranquillity of the Mind, 13

Unless, if faith permits, if god willing, Inch’Allah, etc. These are some of the reserve clauses we can add to our plans. They remind us that nothing is certain and that we can only do our best. But, as Seneca said, it is best to tempt her only rarely. Go and do what you believe is your duty, but don’t be surprised when life shows you a different path. Spend time with the people around you, but don’t be upset when they don’t act the way you wish them to. Managing your expectations means setting them according to reality, but as we progress on our journey, we will find that we can let them go. Replacing them with gratitude and focus in the moment, accepting life as it happens.

How to Manage Expectations like a Stoic
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