In my articles on anger management, I frequently talk about how anger gets disguised as another emotion. Conversely, I also emphasize the reverse: other emotions left unnoticed and unacknowledged can turn into anger. In this article, I offer no disguises, no cover-ups. Witness instead a direct creator and perpetrator of anger.
I expect things. So do you, and so does everyone else. These expectations encompass virtually everything we conceive. We expect things about our bodies and minds, other people (along with their bodies and minds), our jobs, our pets, the sun and moon. If I sound a bit hyperbolic, it’s because I mean to emphasize this: the vast majority of the thoughts we have throughout any given day are comprised of expectations. And with these expectations—every single one of them—we create frustration, irritation, and anger.
An expectation, put in the simplest of terms, is a thought about the way we want something to be. Expectations can range from the obvious form of “I really want to get that job” to more subtle expressions that hardly go noticed, like heavy sighing or rolling one’s eyes. Regardless of what form an expectation takes, it ushers in personalized judgment about the way we think the world should be.
Expectations trap us when we cannot see past them. When we lead with them and then meet up with something very different from our particular desire, anger is typically the result. At its core, anger expresses dissatisfaction with reality. All the different words for anger apply here: irritation, frustration, annoyance, being “miffed,” etc. The intensity of our anger is often directly correlated to the level of attachment we have to our expectations of reality.
It might seem as if I’ve made expectations out to be truly heinous. Usually at this point, a person I’m working with in therapy might say something like, “Well, then, I suppose I should have no expectations at all? Just have no standards?” On the contrary! Standards dictate our commitment, connection, and drive for excellence. What I shop here isn’t an end to expectations, but a renegotiation with them.
Expectations in and of themselves are actually harmless. They can be viewed from the perspective of expressing personal tastes and preferences. Expectations get the better of us only when they become rigid barriers keeping us from flexibly working with what life hands us.
Expectations in and of themselves are actually harmless. They can be viewed from the perspective of expressing personal tastes and preferences. Expectations get the better of us only when they become rigid barriers keeping us from flexibly working with what life hands us. Toward a more functional use of expectations, I offer the use of what I call basic requirements.
Basic requirements express the base-level necessities that must be met for us to continue cultivating a relationship with another person, a job, a lifestyle, etc. Whereas expectations get used as billy clubs to bash over the head of a reality that doesn’t meet our desires, basic requirements take a more open stance. They state that certain things will need to be in place in order for the relationship to continue—for example, respect and trust in a committed romantic relationship. If for some reason the basic requirement isn’t met, both parties may move on.
The reason expectations so often create anger is we stubbornly keep insisting that the thing in question be different, be what we want. Basic requirements free us from this trap. Instead of staying locked in a constant struggle to get an experience from someone or something that just can’t supply it, we take our basic requirements elsewhere. We relieve ourselves of the need to be constantly angry, because we no longer resist the truth that X can’t give us Y.
Notice that attachment is the real culprit here. Basic requirements express how we want the world to be. Attachment keeps us locked in struggle. Freeing ourselves from chronic anger becomes easier and easier when we let ourselves move on from no-win situations.
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