On Letting Go of Attachment to Expectations


I was struck by a quote I heard long ago that said something like

“Our attachment to our expectations is what causes us pain.”

This answered a question I’d had for a long time: How do we not have expectations?  Don’t we need goals and a direction to get anywhere?  Don’t we want to have expectations for our children?

Of course I can and will have expectations.  It’s being attached to them that causes me problems.  It is when I am attached, and someone falls short of my expectations that I get disappointed.  So if I can somehow detach from my expectations then I can be free of the pain that comes when they are not fulfilled.  And free to enjoy whatever I get instead.

Here’s a small example.  I had about a hundred coloring books for my kids sitting in my house but every time I suggested we color in them they weren’t interested or would color for a few minutes and then be bored.

I found they often just wanted a blank piece of paper.  When I brought out a stack of blank printer paper, they could color for days.  They loved using their imagination and creating something from nothing.

The artwork they created amazed me.  It’s far more exciting than coloring between the lines in a coloring book.

So why is it so important to let go of attachments to expectations?  I realized it isn’t just because it’s better for my mental health (which it is) but because it isn’t sustainable for them.

If I want my child to be a dancer or a firefighter or a doctor, and I push them in that direction, and they take the bait, they could spend their whole lives pursuing a dream that is not their own.  They may even have success.

Then, ten years into their career, they might discover this isn’t what they wanted at all.  Now they are stuck after many years and possibly lots of money spent to get there.

That will not bring them happiness.

And by that time, all I can do is watch them suffer from afar with no ability to help them.

If I can let go of my expectations now, and follow their lead, then I can be in a position to help guide them to where they want to go, and most likely I’ll be happier and healthier along the way.  And probably have a stronger relationship with them as well.

The act of letting go was easier once I knew the why but it’s still hard.  I have been practicing for a long time.  These are the steps I follow:

  1. The first step is getting to know what it feels like inside my body when I have an expectation I am attached to and they are not conforming to.  I start to feel anxious and I get kind of pushy.  I find myself trying to convince them to do what I want.  Recognizing this allows me to move to step 2.
  2. The second step is to check in with myself to see what the expectation is.  I identify it and realize I might have a whole scenario in my mind about what it would look like if they fulfilled my expectation.
  3. The third step is remembering this is my dream, not theirs.  They are trying to tell me what their dream is and I can keep pushing mine.  They might eventually comply, but it would be a fight all the way.  If I follow their thought process, they will be much happier and I might even discover something new about them and maybe even about myself.  I understand that I don’t want to be the person to shut that down.
  4. Finally I let go.  I even tell myself, they might want to do this someday but they don’t want to do it right now and that’s OK.  I open myself up to the possibility of something new, something they would teach me not that I would teach them.

The good news is that I have a LOT of opportunities to practice letting go and each time gets easier and easier.  Seeing the joy in their faces when they get to go down their own path is my reward.


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