I was at brunch with my cousin a week ago, and she asked me to tell her about my “best New Year’s Eve ever.” I’m assuming she was looking for entertainment. She’s a new mom, likely feeling starved of a solid story of irresponsibility, and she’s generally used to me being able to provide some sort of embarrassing or sensational tale concluding with something like “and that’s how I learned an unattended golf cart at the MGM is not meant to be driven down the Las Vegas Strip” or “that’s the reason I don’t leave my car in neutral without the E-brake on, even if it doesn’t look like it’s parked on a hill.”
I reflected back on past New Year’s Eves, and I honestly couldn’t recall one that I remembered as spectacular. There was that year when I was 14 and broke my wrist snowboarding, and despite my best acting to pretend I was fine (I had a big night planned: wandering around aimlessly sharing 2 Smirnoff Ice between 4 of my girlfriends), I ended up spending the evening getting my arm casted in the hospital and rung in the millenium playing “The Sims” with my brother. Then there was the next year, where I ended up in that popular Senior’s van with him, and ended up getting tormented for the remainder of my grade 9 year for being “frigid.” Or there was that year my stepmom’s friend fed me too many candy apple martinis and I ended up in bed at 11pm. The theme of disappointing New Year’s Eves goes on, and I know this is not a unique story. Ask anyone what the most “overrated” celebration of the year is, and they’re probably going to tell you New Year’s Eve. After all, it’s one of the few holidays that seems solely focused on partying and having a good time. At least other occasions during the year have something like wearing a costume or green or gushing about how happy we are with our current relationship status.
So, aside from the many lessons learned from my underwhelming NYE experiences, I was reminded of the often destructive nature of expectations. Not just expectations around a good time on New Year’s Eve, but around anything, really. Expectations around relationships, experiences, life… and this likely is not the first time you’ve heard this advice to “Let go of expectations.” I’ve previously mentioned how expectations generally are the precipitating factor in disappointment, defeat, rejection, etc. But how do you actually “let go” of them? You can’t un-know what you already know, and once you have a vision for how you want your evening/holiday/life to look, it can be difficult to detach yourself from that.
So, as always, my goal here is not simply to share stories of poor decisions from my past. Rather, I intend to give you some ideas for how you might be able to detach yourself from expectations, and deconstruct the everpresent positive interpretations of “having hope,” which will likely lead to a more present and fulfilling existence (awww shiiiiiiiit. Now you’ve gotta keep reading…).
But first, let’s talk about hope for a moment:
“Don’t give up hope!”
“There’s always hope!”
“Hope will keep you going!”
I remember being trained to take calls on our local suicide hotline while gaining experience in mental health several years ago, and learning about the importance of finding out sources of hope from the distressed callers. Whatever their answer, we were taught to hold onto it with a white knuckle grip. Hope was the golden ticket when talking to people in that position. As a result, I glorified hope. I loved hope. I wanted to name my non-existent future child Hope (really, I did). And yes, it’s true that hope can be helpful. It can keep people going. It can “make the present moment less difficult to bear” (Thich Nhat Hanh).
Yet, there’s another side. Giving up hope can actually make people happier, if it leads to accepting their present unchangeable reality. Check out this fascinating study done at the University of Michigan, where researchers found patients who gave up hope about having their colostomy procedure reversed were happier and reported a better quality of life than those who held onto hope that they could be cured.
Another thing good ol’ Thich Nhat Hanh said was, “If we cling to the idea of hope in the future, we might not notice the peace and joy that are available in the present moment. The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.” So, having hope and expectations not only can lead to disappointment, but it can trap us in the future and cause us to miss our lives.
When and Why Hope Can Be Necessary
Sometimes, hope is necessary to keep going. In the classic stages of grief, hope bears resemblance to denial. “(I hope) my cat will come back.” “(I hope) my lover will come back.” “(I hope) the doctor got the diagnosis wrong.” This is a necessary period we need to go through in order to cope with the present moment, and it’s perfectly OK.
But, when hope is no longer serving or necessary, it might be more productive to work toward letting go of expectation and accepting or embracing the present moment. So how does one do that, exactly? Well, here are some tips:
1) Notice That You’re Expecting/Hoping/Attaching
You’ve heard this before: the first step to change is awareness. So, first aim to notice when you’re hoping/expecting/wishing. Don’t beat yourself up for it as it’s what our minds naturally do to manage uncertainty and feel more in control. Instead, congratulate yourself for noticing you’re attaching to expectation, and identify the expectation to which you’re attaching. Your expectation might be around an emotion, an experience, an aesthetic presentation–really anything you can envision, you can attach an expectation to. Once you’re able to catch your mind expecting, you’ll be able to implement the following steps to help yourself detach.
2) Consider, Imagine, Envision Other Possibilities
Sure, New Year’s Eve could be a ton of fun. You could feel great, have just the right amount to drink (if that’s how you roll) at the appropriately-sized gathering of your choice, meet the person of your dreams (with whom you’ll share a completely un-awkward midnight kiss), and wake up New Year’s Day with a full wallet and no hangover in love forever and ever. OR you could get up on NYE morning with a flu, forget the ticket to your event, wait in a lineup for 2 hours, spend $18/glass for Baby Duck, run into your ex who’s there with their fiance (and they both look fantastic and magnificently happy), and not be able to find a cab home. You wake up New Years day debilitatingly hungover and read through a string of mortifying cryptic texts. 2014 is off to a great start. Now of course, not all the possibilities you envision should be negative, but we tend to polarize our expectations and either imagine an amazing or horrible time. You could have a pleasant evening, enjoyable with standard minor annoyances and moments of excitement, boredom, and awkwardness. The idea here is to think of other possibilities. In doing so, you’ll automatically become less attached to your original expectation. Do this with your relationship, your day, your life. Anything could happen at any time, and your life course may or may not include all those things you expect.
3) Be Cautiously Optimistic
This relates to the hope piece I mentioned earlier. People always say “Be positive,” “Be optimistic,” “Think positively!” Well, fair. It’s nice to be around people who are optimistic. But optimism can sometimes border on ignorance or irresponsibility if we’re not careful. If we’re blindly trusting and make no space for negative possibilities, we end up being taken advantage of or ignoring red flags (e.g. sometimes those chronic stomach pains aren’t “just stress,” and sometimes leaving a laptop unattended WILL lead to it being stolen…or ski poles, if you were me yesterday–who steals ski poles, by the way?). Cautious optimism is where one takes into account the realistically possible negative outcomes, but chooses to recognize what’s in and out of their control and thus keep most of their attention on the positive. Think of it as taking a flashlight to a dark room, shining the light all around the room to become aware of the surroundings, then resting the light on the smiling family portrait on the wall rather than that stain on the carpet where the cat threw up.
4) Reframe Your Interpretation of Unpleasant Feelings/Experiences. Use Nonjudgmental Language to Describe Your World
I like to say it’ll either be a good time or a good story–and, if neither of those, a good learning experience. No matter what, it will be an experience, period, and with a little creativity you can derive some lesson/understanding/awareness from it. Try to censor your descriptive language of your experience from judgmental adjectives (e.g. good/bad/pretty/ugly/right/wrong), and try to replace them with more objective, neutral words, or at least less strong or loaded ones (e.g. unique/curious/serving/pleasant/uncomfortable/etc.). Remind yourself to make space for all experiences, the “good” and the “bad,” the comfortable and the uncomfortable, and trust that all are part of your precarious human existence.
5) Stay in the Present (Pay Attention, Meditate, Focus on the Process, Flow, Appreciate the Moments in Between).
How many times today have you taken a deep breath into your belly? How many times have you noticed the colours around you, gotten lost in the Christmas lights (if they’re still up), felt the softness of a blanket or brought your attention to texture of your food as you’ve chewed? I can tell you I haven’t done any of those things today. I’m going to do them all right this second, so I can justifiably encourage you to do so, but there are more benefits to it than just that. We tend to put all our emphasis on outcomes, climaxes, and Instagram-worthly moments, and in doing so we miss those precious spaces in between that our equally worthy of our attention.
Something I like to do is take “snapshots.” No, I don’t mean with my phone, or with the intention to share them later (although I do that, too). Rather, I like to take a moment to observe all my surroundings–the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations in my body and otherwise. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention to your life. Try it right now. Observe your experience with curiosity and compassion–not with the expectation that you’ll achieve some sort of nirvana or euphoria or calm. Just a moment to feel alive and appreciate that.
So, with these tips in mind, I encourage you approach this New Year’s Eve with intentions to detach from expectations, and to stay awake (and not in the sense that most people mean when they talk about staying up until midnight…). I might be at a swanky party pretending I know how to walk in heels, having a glorious or terrible time; or I might be asleep in my bed still fighting this winter cold I can’t seem to shake; or hey, maybe the world might have ended between now and then, so it might be a good idea to take a “snapshot” of your current experience right now. (even if it’s listening to a Greyhound full of sniffling and hacking passengers, which has been my “unique experience” over these past few hours…). Wishing you all an enlightening and compassion-filled 2014 🙂 !