Have you ever been excited about a vacation? Or hoping this next job interview will land you in the perfect position? Or looking forward to creating memories as a family? And often, we get so excited and want everything to be just right, only to find the moment not living up to the expectation and the vision we had in our head. We can end up feeling disappointed, discouraged, and frustrated. It is natural to envision a certain outcome or have hopes for a certain situation. And a lot of us can struggle with overly high expectations. But sometimes that can get us stuck.
When we are met with the disappointment and frustration of life not aligning with our expectations, we can often get stuck in the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” line of thinking. We begin to dwell on what didn’t happen and focus our energy on trying to change reality. It can look something like this: “I should’ve done this. If I had only known, I could’ve done that. If I would’ve check on this or asked that question, this never would have happened.” This line of thinking quickly becomes one of those rabbit holes that just takes us further and further down.
So, what do we do? Do we just not have expectations for anything or anyone? Or set the bar so low so we protect ourselves from disappointment? As temping as that can sound, it leaves us in a very small, rigid box that causes us to disengage and miss out on possibilities. So now what?
To manage expectations and navigate disappointment while maintaining our inner peace and resilience, use the 3 A’s approach.
The 3 A's Approach for Managing Expectations and Navigating Disappointment.
What does this mean?
Acceptance is embracing the good, bad, and disappointing aspects of life. It is about receiving what is actually happening. What are the facts of the situation/circumstance? It is acknowledging what I wanted to happen, what is actually happening, and the feelings I have about it without judgment. It is being present with the situation.
Agency is asking ourselves what do I have control over and what do I not have control over. What can I do? Given this current situation, what is important to me? It is necessary to remember when reflecting on this that we do not have control over other people or the world around us, but rather, we have control over ourselves and our decisions.
Appreciation is bringing into focus the present positives, what am I grateful for and what did I enjoy. It is concentrating on what we have rather than what we want. It is about the present moment rather than the future.
So, what does this look like in a real-life situation?
Let’s say you are going on a Caribbean vacation in the middle of winter to get some warmth and sunshine to escape the dreariness of the long winter months. You can see yourself sitting on the beach, reading a book, and taking in the ocean view, the sunshine and perhaps a daiquiri. The day before you leave, you check the weather. It is predicting rain every day. Your heart sinks and your stomach knots. That can’t be. The weather report is always wrong anyway. It is going to be sunny. I just know it. It has to be sunny. (Notice the automatic fight against reality.)
You arrive to your destination and there is just a light drizzle. Ok, it’s just drizzle. I wasn’t really going to have time for the beach today anyway. I will just relax in my room, grab dinner and this will clear up by tomorrow. Only it doesn’t. You check the weather report again and it predicts rain every day. Now the disappointment really begins to set in. And so does the negative spiral… I should’ve changed my vacation to the week after or month after. Why didn’t I see if I could change my vacation time at work. I could’ve come at a different time but now my vacation is ruined. And we can become stuck here. A ruined vacation.
What would it look like if the 3’A’s approach was utilized? How could it help us manage our expectations and navigate disappointment?
The day before you leave you check the weather report and see rain predicted every day.
Acceptance: Uh! Really? There is going to be rain every day?!? That is not what I wanted. I am really disappointed. I hope there are some pockets of sun, but I need to be ready that it might rain the entire time. Sometimes this is enough to then shift into the next step, agency, but sometimes our disappointment really escalated us internally. When this happens, we need to take a pause and attend to ourselves by calming our nervous system. Some calming tools are as follows:
Calming Tools to Help Us Manage Expectations and Navigate Disappointment
1. Mindful Breathing: inhale 4 counts and exhale 8 counts. Repeat 10x. Try to focus your mind on the sound of your breath. If your mind drifts away r begin to think about your current distress, gently bring it back to your breath.
2. Go for a Walk: Getting outside, especially if there is nature or water nearby can be very soothing to your mind and body. As you walk, notice your surroundings. What are 5 things you see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. As you find them, say them outload.
3. Hold a piece of ice: Place a piece of ice in your hand. What does it feel like? How does the sensation change as it melts? How long does it take to melt?
4. Savor food or a drink: Have a cup of warm tea. What does the mug feel like in your hands? What does the tea smell like? What does it taste like? How does it feel in your mouth? How does your body feel as you sip it.
Once your nervous system is more regulated and you feel a little calmer, you can move into the next step, agency.
Agency: Ok. If it going to rain, what are my options? I could cancel my trip completely. I could look into postponing my trip and speak to my employer to see if I could shift my vacation week and I can call the hotel and airline and see if I could make changes to my reservation. Or I can look into what else there is to do at my destination that is not as weather dependent. What is important to me right now given this set of circumstances? I have been feeling really stressed and burned out and was looking forward to getting away. Can I wait for a later time, or do I need this now? I really need this break, plus I have a project coming up when I get back, so leaving later isn’t really an option right now. Ok. I will go on vacation and know that this vacation will be different than I hoped but I can find some other possibilities. I will start researching other activities to do while I am there, I will bring an additional book, and check the weather each day to see if there are any pockets of sun or no rain so I can have a little beach time.
Appreciation: I am glad that I can still go away. I need the break. It will be good to have a change of scenery, not have to check in at work, and focus on some restorative things I have been wanting to do.
Appreciation is a step that evolves as we navigate the new possibilities. It is bringing our focus into the present moment and what we can enjoy and be grateful for. Sometimes it is as simple as showing gratitude that we could sleep in, or for the meal we are eating, discovering something new, or ourselves and our ability to problem solve and adapt even if it was hard. It is key to remember that appreciation is a practice. It is often most helpful to integrate it into our daily lives.
Ideas for a Daily Appreciation Practice
1. Write down 3 things you appreciate every day.
2. Write why you appreciate each of those things.
3. Notice the small, mundane things and find appreciation.
4. Appreciate the people in your life. Every day name a person and a quality about them you appreciate.
5. Remember to appreciate yourself. What are aspects of yourself that you appreciate.
When we practice appreciation, we can develop our appreciation muscle and skill, so it can be a useful tool when we need it.
In the twists and turns of life, managing expectations and navigating disappointment is an ongoing process that requires patience, resilience, and a healthy dose of adaptability. Rather than dwelling on the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” redirect your energy towards finding solutions and embracing the unexpected by using the 3 A’s approach. Remember, the beauty of life lies not in its predictability, but in the myriad of opportunities that unfold when we approach it with an open heart and flexible mindset.