intentions vs. expectations

A few weeks ago, I sat with a friend on her porch in the sunshine, drinking beer and discussing relationships. “You know,” she said, “I’m realizing that women who have what they want got it because they had clear intentions. They didn’t just let things happen to them, they really knew what they wanted.”

I resisted the urge to leap up and shout, “Dear God, YES!!! This is EXACTLY what I’ve been saying for more than a year!!” Instead I resisted the impulse, nodded and agreed. “You’re so right. Intentions make all the difference.”

Everyone has to come to her or his own understanding of life’s biggest truths. How many times did I hear about the power of intention before I understood it in relation to my life? (Dozens, I’m guessing.) How many times did I read about toxic relationships, without applying it to my own? How many times was I presented with wisdom and advice that would have been invaluable to me, without seeing its value?

We all absorb information in our own way, relating it to ourselves if and when we’re ready. I look back at past journals and find pages describing wise solutions to my biggest issues, pages that I wrote myself, and am only now finally ready or able to absorb. My friend had to make her own discovery about intentions, no matter how many times she might have heard me or others say how important they are. Now she has the opportunity to apply that discovery—and to rediscover it again, and again, if necessary.

I’m in that process right now, too.

Even though I’ve understood the power of intention for years, and have applied that power to learn, grow and thrive, I’m only now learning how much I need to manage my expectations and replace them with intentions. It took rereading a passage by Mark Nepo for the third time, along with a series of small let-downs, to help me finally recognize this truth.

Expectations of how something will go, how someone will act, what outcome I’ll experience, all have a measure of entitlement, and almost always lead to disappointment and the reinforcement of limiting beliefs about myself and relationships. I can’t control what’s going to happen, and when I find myself being attached to expectations—not goals, and not standards for what’s acceptable or unacceptable, but my own projections of how something should be—I set myself and others up to fall short. Who am I to say how something should be, anyway? How do I know what’s best, given my own limited perspective and biases? There’s almost no way to avoid a negative experience when my expectations are inflated and ignited, when I’m attached to a mental image of the way things are supposed to turn out.

Intentions, however, are within my control, and consistently lead to positive experiences. The difference is not only in what they represent—a relative experience rather than a specific desired outcome—but in how I create them. Intentions are conscious, requiring me to understand and prioritize what’s most important to me. Of course we all operate on subconscious reflexes and desires, but the very definition of intention indicates a purpose, awareness of an objective.

With expectations, the objective is simply to have what we imagined come true in order to satisfy our egos. It implies that we’re somehow entitled to that outcome because we thought of it, we want it and it sounds good. With intention, I’m forced to determine the purpose driving anything and everything I do. My relationships. My health. My finances. My daily life. As well as any particular experience, such as having specific intentions for a social engagement, a meeting or a trip.

Sometimes intentions are easy. I know when I meet a dear girlfriend for coffee, we’re going to catch up on our latest stories, listen, validate, laugh, show support, provide honest advice if asked for, and come away feeling recharged by the time together. Those are my intentions for our date. But if I had expectations for how it was supposed to go, that we would talk for X minutes about me, that I would get X feedback, that she would say X and I would feel X about it, chances are I’d be let down—either that or be working so hard to manipulate the situation, I’d kill any possibility of spontaneous connection and the natural flow of conversation.

There’s actually a reason the cliché question for suitors is “what is your intention?” Intention implies a conscious objective, knowing yourself and what you want so you can bring that to your relationships, so it can inform every decision you make and even affect your unconscious actions. “What is your expectation?” would imply something very different, that you already have an expected outcome in mind, regardless of the opinions, wants or ideas of others, rather than simply an intentional purpose. People are described as having expectations for inheritance, passively waiting to receive what others choose to bestow on them, being disappointed if those expectations aren’t met. Visionaries who accomplish great things in life don’t have expectations for what will happen—they have purpose, and that allows them to falter and fail and try again, not limited by anything, not even their own imaginations.

I still struggle with this, with managing my expectations for others and myself as well as for specific situations. I’m still learning this lesson, continually reminding myself to let go of my attachment to the outcomes I think are going to be “right,” and focus instead on what matters most to me. Because in the end, I know this is the only way to find true happiness, fulfillment and alignment with myself. The only way to get what I really want.

Hopefully, at some point, this truth will finally stick.

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