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.

one tiny piece of a big puzzle

“I’ve been over what I’m supposed to say and I’ve got to tell you, it’s pretty persuasive stuff, but is it the whole truth? It’s a slice of truth, a morsel, a fraction. It’s a piece of the pie, certainly not the whole enchilada, and now that I’ve been thinking about it, I don’t think I could tell the whole truth about anything. That’s a pretty heavy burden, because we all just view the world through this little piece of coke bottle. Is there such a thing as objective truth I wonder.”  – Jeff Melvoin, producer/writer, “Northern Exposure”

I had a personal lesson this weekend that reminded me how narrow my perspective is, how this narrowness affects what I feel and limits what I understand. First person is the only point of view we know. We can’t choose otherwise, as much as we might like to see the world from other people’s perspectives. We can hear their words, and read their words. We can empathize, we can absorb their ideas into our own. But no matter how hard we listen, it just isn’t possible to turn off our subjectivity—our own minds are all we experience, and even recognizing our own truth is challenging.

Last week I was mildly obsessed with the idea that I’d embarrassed myself out socializing, and a week later, when I had a chance to speak to one of the other people involved, I discovered that he had felt the exact same way. To the point that this person apologized to me, and said he’d been worried that he had embarrassed himself. It’s pretty comical, and also a prime example of how we’re all only seeing a very small portion of what’s happening. We’re telling a story about ourselves to ourselves, and chances are it’s either totally imaginary or only a tiny bit true. It’s one small piece of the larger story, one tiny fragment. In this case, our stories were identical but from completely opposite points of view.

Taking this further, I can look back at my past relationships and see much more of what was really going on between my ex-partners and myself, but that wasn’t the case at the time. The stories have opened up to me now, months or years later, to include a greater part of the truth—I won’t ever know all of it, it’s not up to me to know all of it. I’m able to view scattered scraps and sections, more than what I knew when I only saw my personal sliver, but still less than the whole.

Each story and layer of story is like a jigsaw puzzle—for years I tried to obsessively fit two pieces together that didn’t really fit, focused entirely on those two pieces and nothing else. I couldn’t see that one was sky and one was rocks. I struggled and pushed and obsessed over those two pieces. I put one down and glared at the other one, and then put that one down. It was all I felt able to do. And now, after much thought and processing, I’ve drawn back far enough to see the puzzle they belong to, see many pieces laid out and fitted together with gaps remaining between them, a half-finished jigsaw. And I can finally let go of my two mismatched pieces, placing them easily into their right places, with a better idea of the picture being created.

Every day this is a struggle and an opportunity, and it will continue no matter how self-aware or actualized we become. I’m reminded to keep my mind as open as possible as often as possible, even when I feel stuck in my own perspective. To step outside the narrative I’m telling myself about what’s happening, and to remember that there’s a much, much bigger story in play—and that everyone is seeing it from a different, unique and valid angle.

I can’t stop looking through my tiny piece of coke bottle, but I can remember how limited it is.

the reframing of “why”

The “why” questions we ask ourselves are often rooted in victimhood and ego, centered in our insecurities and fears. Mine certainly are. These aren’t “whys” we’re asking because we want answers, even though we might say them out loud. I’ve said (and heard) things like: “why did this happen to me again?? why am I so unlucky?” or “why doesn’t she/he love me? why don’t they like me?” or “why am I always wrong? what’s the matter with me?” Honest answers to these kinds of questions could help us gain insight on ourselves, assuming we had a wise, accepting space to discover them. But I’ve learned that there are more valuable, powerful, positive “why” questions we can ask that arise from the conscious, sincere desire to uncover a truth. The answers aren’t always obvious, but I believe the process of answering can lead us to greater self-awareness and to making healthy, authentic choices.

I learned to reframe my “why” questions last year. I began with “why do I want —?”—a simple and revealing question, though the answer can be complex. I wrote down: Why do I want to be in a relationship?, took a deep, centering breath, and then allowed myself to work through all the various angles and baggage until I found the answer that was most authentic to my life right now. The true reasons I want to—eventually—be in a relationship have nothing to do with ticking clocks or societal pressure or even the occasional bout of loneliness or longing (which I’ve learned are far easier and kinder to feel outside of a relationship than inside one). Once I was able to let go of those side issues, I could see the full, true answer, and knowing it has empowered me to feel good about where I am right now and confident in the choices I’m making.

I’ve found that often this is just a matter of turning a statement around, making “I want a better job,” or “I want to do more with my life” into a question. Why do I want a better job? Why do I feel I’m not doing enough with my life, and why do I feel the need to do more? These aren’t easy questions to ask ourselves, but I believe that the practice of defining exactly what’s motivating us to want something can be really effective, giving us a clarity of purpose that could easily be lost in focusing on the lack of what we want. We might find we don’t actually want that particular thing right now, it’s just become a part of our automatic narrative to think we do.

Even more difficult “why” questions are the sort a therapist might ask—Why do you believe —? Why do you feel that way about —? Big, important questions, questions we may need to have answered. My problem is that I tend to freeze up in therapy. Having even a trusted, licensed listener expecting me to struggle with verbal responses to this stuff makes me on edge and fuzzy. I believe it’s extremely valuable to be asked such things, but I find that the answers come with much more honesty and fluidity when I ask them of myself. The trick is being able to ease or drag out the truth—at least the truth as we know it.

Defining these answers for ourselves isn’t necessarily the whole truth forever and ever amen, but it’s a really good place to start, a place to challenge our automated patterns and outdated beliefs. It requires honest reflection, with an open mind, knowing that we aren’t perfect and may have to face some disturbing or uncomfortable things about who we are and the choices we’ve made. But again, that’s just a place to start.

I also find that it helps me prod myself into writing in my journal if I pose a question to answer, rather than try to force out “deep thoughts” on my brief lunch hour or while dinner is cooking. One question alone could lead to pages of insight written over weeks or months, perhaps opening into a dozen more questions, if we give ourselves the opportunity to fully answer. The beautiful thing is that nobody is going to read this document, this scrawled page in a notebook. Grammar and spelling and linear thinking aren’t required. It’s a way for us to have conversations with ourselves, and what better way to start a conversation than with a meaty, introspective question?

This past year, through a required work exercise using a surveyed list of adjectives, I discovered that several people close to me don’t perceive me as I perceive myself. I saw myself as much kinder and warmer and more giving than they did—one respondent believed I was self-centered and ruthless. These are people I see every day, people I consider to be good friends, who genuinely like me. It was startling and upsetting, and at first I was in hot, angry denial about the results. The survey wasn’t terribly scientific, so I could enjoy that rationalization for a day or two. But then I started to open up to the possibility that maybe I was kinder on the inside, in my own perceptions, than I was on the outside. I spent some time thinking about why that might be, what behaviors or actions might be resulting in that disconnect. It led me down some very unexpected paths, and allowed me to discover deeply hidden truths about the story I’ve been telling myself my whole life. Rather than ignore what happened, or decide that it meant I was unworthy and wrong (believe me, I had moments), I went inside the why. Why was there such a disconnect in the survey results, however trivial the exercise? Why did I feel such a strong need to see myself as sweet and giving, when clearly that wasn’t necessarily the whole truth of my personality?

I remind myself often, when faced with something complicated or challenging, to look a little deeper at the quandary or situation. Why am I resisting this? Why do I feel so strongly about this? Why am I reacting this way? And no matter how tricky the answers can be, they always teach me something constructive and empowering. When applied with large doses of self-acceptance, endless compassion and as much detachment as possible, asking ourselves “why” can be a powerful tool for growth.