Dear Carolyn: How does one balance expectations between reasonably high and realistic? I've had a few disappointments lately that hit me fairly hard — a promotion dangled and then delayed, a budding friendship that's running hot and cold despite my best efforts, a new skill I'm learning in my free time that's been much harder to grasp than I'd thought.
All of it together is just bad timing, but it did make me think I have a pattern of getting my hopes up too high because someone said something positive, then getting discouraged too easily when things stall or get off track.
Is this an actual thing? Is there a context for it? My life overall is good; I really can't complain. But this bit just bugs me.
Discouraged: Hopes are hard to work with, because they’re mostly imagined. Even hopes for tangible things are based only on your mind’s projections of how it will feel to achieve them.
Experiences, though, have substance. You know what they are.
So before you work on tempering your hopes — effectively, tethering your runaway imagination — look first to any experiences you remember well of having them dashed. Think carefully. How hard have your hard feelings typically been? How long have your down moods lingered? When did you get back up and start trying again? What steps did you take that helped you feel better?
If you can recall the process and feelings of recovery, then just having those in mind can blunt the effect of future disappointments. So, for example, you feel yourself getting excited about a dangled promotion, yes? Then you can say to yourself: “And if I don’t get it, then my history says I’ll feel X for a while and start bouncing back around Y.” This can have significant, steadying power.
Even if this emotional history lesson doesn’t occur to you as your hopes are building, it still works amid a fresh letdown: “It’s bad now, but I know this will start lifting by Y.” What’s easier to slog through, a bad time of indefinite length, or a bad stretch you can generally expect to last for X-ish?
The trick is, it’s the same bad time either way; it’s just your understanding of it that changes. And that can change everything about how you feel when you’re in the throes.
Once you practice this kind of self-awareness enough for it to become reflexive, it can actually do the work of tempering your hopes for you. That’s because the calmer you are about the prospect of unrealized hopes, the more comfortable you become in your moment — and, therefore, the less distracted you’ll be by this or that shiny better place your hopes keep insisting is out there.
The point isn’t to discourage striving, promotions, new friends or acquired skills, of course — both achieving these and working toward them enrich our lives. Instead, the point is to find the patience to let them tell you whether and how they’ll affect you. That solution lies within you, not in the size or scope of your dreams.