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.

the extreme effort of autopilot

Looking back, I think the worst decisions I’ve ever made were because I was on autopilot.

I wasn’t paying attention. I was choosing not to.

Instead, I survived in a depressing, narrow rut day after day, using most of my energy to avoid facing the truth about myself. As if that truth would be so shameful and terrifying and horrible that anything was better than facing it, so I worked to tune it out. I flipped through every possible channel in a daze of noisy distractions, rather than simply turn off the TV and sit with whatever was going to come.

This was happening after I started practicing yoga, meditating and writing in a journal, even while I was in therapy. I was still switched off somehow, actively not noticing what my own inner guide was trying to tell me. Ironically, autopilot requires a whole lot more effort than facing whatever we’re avoiding. The truth is always grounding and centering, even when it’s challenging, and it’s often challenging. Even when it isn’t what we wanted it to be, it brings ease of mind, balance, and, ultimately, hope. The truth of who we are and what we need, what we’re experiencing, what we’re carrying around with us—that truth can only help us make the right choices. It can only lead us to deeper compassion, honesty, understanding and growth.

So why was I so afraid of facing it? Why do we go years on autopilot, why do we make decisions for ourselves in direct opposition to what our instinct is telling us to do?

I believe my answer is: because I didn’t trust myself.

I trusted what other people wanted and what my past told me I should be and do, I made what decisions I convinced myself were best. I knew my own truth all along, I just didn’t trust what I knew. So I survived, ignoring what I feared to face, making a lot of intention statements that left out the most important intentions, choosing poorly and then struggling with the consequences of those choices.

It seemed safer not to be aware of any of this. And yes, it does take a certain amount of bravery to face what we’ve been hiding from ourselves. We’re probably going to have to let go of things—preconceptions, habits, patterns, triggers, expectations. We might very well lose people we care about, and the selves and futures they represent to us. Things will change, and change is scary and full of unknowns. We’re afraid it’s going to be a lot harder and more painful than ignoring what’s clamoring to be noticed in ourselves.

But, as I once heard at a work seminar, You can either be brave or safe. You can’t be both.

I hid from my truths because it felt safe. The truth that I wasn’t honoring myself in my relationships, that I wasn’t taking care of myself, that I was compromising who I really am. That my quality of life was suffering from the choices I was making. That doing just barely enough to get by wasn’t what I want or deserve.

This last time I was on autopilot, I was jolted out of it by the death of someone I loved very much. My grief affected everything, and made it clear how much work it took to make my very un-OK situation seem OK. Things got real and dramatic and then, suddenly, it was over. I was free from fear—awake, in control, accountable, balanced and at peace. The truth I faced was a friendly one. I could feel ashamed and angry and sad without resistance. I could let go.

Maybe autopilot is necessary sometimes. But now I know, without any doubt, that it isn’t easier. That ignoring what’s really true doesn’t serve or honor me or anybody else. And that if I can keep paying attention, keep facing my truths no matter how challenging, keep trusting my inner guide to steer me, I won’t be in a position to make such poor choices again.

the sharp places

I’ve been thinking a lot about my inner sharp places. Those small, bitter shards of resistance that I so often find myself coming up against. No matter how positive I feel in general, no matter how much toxic baggage I let go of, they’re always there.

I mentioned this to a close friend, and she said that over the years, I’ve helped teach her that we have to face our sharp places “like a ninja.” I love that image. Something about the idea of a silent, sure-footed ninja slipping around in my mind, ready to leap out unexpectedly and catch my most resentful, antagonistic thoughts, is really encouraging.

Most of us seem to have these hard, sharp corners, whatever the causes. We keep bumping into them within ourselves, getting cut and bruised, even acting out in negative ways, until we’re willing to look directly at them. To face them like warriors, like ninjas. When we do, when we fearlessly address the issues and emotions causing them, they stop being so wounding and start to break down. It requires us to be brave and honest, to let ourselves feel our disappointment, pain, shame and anger, rather than resisting it.

Sharp places are resistance in its purest form. We’re hurt, or offended, or resentful, or unwilling to accept the way things are—or all of the above and then some. We’re resisting something we don’t want to face or feel, and creating a razor-sharp edge in the process. Only when we soften around them do the sharp places melt to nothing. It isn’t easy to feel these things or face our own hurt in this way, but it’s far easier than the effort of avoiding or ignoring our resistance to what is. The problems may not go away, but our responses can become more compassionate, conscious and positive.

My friend went onto say the edges won’t get less sharp over time but “we’ll get tougher,” and I believe that’s true. I think when we do honestly face them, look at them unflinchingly, the hard edges dull and disappear—the snag is, there are always news shards of resistance being created within us. So we get tougher over the years, in a sense—we’re less inclined to jump away from the jabs or simply get sliced to pieces over and over again. We stop believing that we deserve those endless stings, and instead open ourselves to the sharpness, to what’s behind it, knowing it’s the only way.

I like the thought of sitting quietly and sensing the various sharp places within me, recognizing and even honoring them as resistance, and then consciously softening around them with each deep breath. I’ll never stop resisting things, or struggling with the emotions that create resistance. Sharp places will always appear. But I don’t have to cut myself on them anymore, pretending they don’t exist.