Realistic Expectations and Notion of Control

I recently moved across the state. As I was planning this move, deep within, I was also thinking about what I can expect from the move. I was also signing up for a heartbreak.

Realistic Expectations and Notion of Control
Artwork by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

As I was planning my recent move across the state, I was, deep within, also thinking about what I can expect from this. What would be the benefits of moving away from the current place? What could I do that I am not currently doing? How would my mornings be? Or my evenings? How would my work-life balance change?

However, I spent no time first acknowledging the state that the things I do not own or control would be in. In short, I was setting too many expectations for myself, signing up for the resultant heartbreak that would invariably cause. Why do I do that? Is it not easy to plan only for things that depend just on me? The things that I do control?

Resonating with the thoughts I was living through, Jason Becker had recently posted how it is frustrating that he could never meet the expectations he sets for himself.

How often am I angry, frustrated, and disappointed because my expectations could never be met, even if what happens is great? The expectations gap has an outsized impact on my experience. How do I get better at discovering realistic expectations without shortchanging myself?

Even I got curious. What are realistic expectations? Cheri Baker pointed him to an article by Gregory Sadler discussing the Stoic concept of the dichotomy of control.

It is an insightful read — what was most enlightening for me was reading about the concepts of control and power. Here is the relevant passage from Epictetus's Handbook (emphasis mine) that Gregory examines and talks about.

Some things are within our power (eph’ ēmin in the original Greek) while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

I always knew that I should not let things outside my control affect me and my day-to-day life. And I always struggled with that — how can you stay aloof to what is happening around you? Why can't you control your behaviour? I realized after reading the essay, though, that there is a minor distinction between control and power.

Control is too strong a word. There are times when I (and possibly each one of us) get frustrated and quip that I control nothing. In short, I am neither able to decide nor influence the things happening around me.

It typically happens when I decide to wake up one fine day, get ready and spend the whole day with myself, reading and writing. But the morning jerks me up amidst complete chaos — things are broken around me, physically and mentally. The tap has suddenly started leaking. Or my kid or spouse do not share my enthusiasm for a beautiful day. Sure, I might still have a wonderful day. But stay saddened by the fact that the day turned out to be so different from what I had fancied.

So, what does one do? To think that nothing is in our control and not set any expectations is effortless, yet wrong. Furthermore, setting realistic expectations is a lot harder than it sounds. Whatever expectations you set for yourself, there is a slight probability that fate has other plans for you.

Gregory suggests that I should mould my thought process. Rather than thinking that I would not let things outside my control affect me, I should reason with myself on these lines.

I am responsible for, and should focus upon, the things that depend upon me, i.e. my beliefs, my decisions, and my character. These are the things that matter, which determine if I am a good or bad person, and If I live a happy or unhappy life. I not mistakenly think my happiness or value is determined by the things not ‘up to’ me.

Here is my takeaway. The only thing I should focus on is the thing that is up to me, my character. Don't give too much attention to the notion of control. It is not fruitful. Set the expectations, the plan. But be aware that things will not always work out as per the set plan. It is only natural to hold the feeling of frustrations and disappointment as a result. But then realize that these feelings are only temporary, find ways to stay calm amidst disappointment. And definitely, a way to not do that is finding the right expectations to set — there's no right way to do that.

I have found my ways to stay calm amidst the disappointments. I listen to my favourite music, I write in my diary, I meditate. At times, I simply get back to the work I love. All these acts calm me down. What are the actions that do the same for you?

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