A helpful question when you’re afraid to hope for too much


I spent a lot of my early adulthood doing my best to avoid disappointment. I had big dreams for how I wanted my life to be, but I was afraid of them. Even as I imagined a life full of writing, romance, world travel and grand adventures, I was afraid to hope for too much.

I set low expectations for what I could achieve, both to myself and other people.

I undersold my talents, lest my friends and colleagues discover I was an imposter all along.

I hid my vulnerabilities fiercely, lest someone find and exploit them.

I tried not to get too invested in my dreams, lest fate come down and remind me I didn’t deserve them.

I lived by phrases like, “Underpromise, overdeliver,” and “Keep your expectations low. That way, you’ll never be disappointed.”

I spent so much precious time and energy doing everything I could to avoid the pain of disappointment.

I think we all do this. The sting of disappointment is, somehow, one of the hardest parts of being human.

As part of my 30-day journaling challenge, I was journaling recently about my relationship with myself, and I was thinking about the ways, even now, I try to manage my own expectations and protect myself from disappointment. I found myself wondering about this.

I found myself wondering why we — all of us — try so hard to avoid disappointment. Why does it sting so much? Disappointment need not crush a person, after all. It will hurt, and we will get through it, and one day, we might even look back and feel some gratitude for what we learned from the experience.

It seems to me that the bigger challenge has to do with expectation, and specifically what we expect of ourselves. So much of my own fear of disappointment has come from my unwillingness to let go of my own unreasonably high expectations for myself.

Expectations that demand perfection on the first try. That insist anything less than overnight success is complete failure. That see any sign of struggle, any small error, any show of vulnerability as undeniable truth that I do not measure up.

Oh, the suffering we needlessly create for ourselves!

I wonder if it isn’t so much the fear of disappointment as it is our impossible expectations that keep us from daring to live more fully. Disappointment itself isn’t really so bad. But when we treat the experience of disappointment as proof of our own innate not-enoughness… well, then things start to get interesting.

What would it look like to dare without expectation? How might that change our relationship to what is possible?

I’ll leave it there. Sometimes a question is more powerful than an answer.