Thoughts on expectations during the festive period

In All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare writes: ‘Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises,’ roughly translating to that famous saying ‘expectations are the root of all heartache.’ If you, like me, struggle with anxiety, this quote packs quite the punch.

These symptoms also typically flare up during social periods, making the festive season a minefield. In fact, social expectations during December can overwhelm even the most level-headed of us. So, all this makes me wonder: what are expectations, and why can ‘time with loved ones’ be such an expectation-heavy experience?

What are expectations?
From a neuroscientific perspective, expectations are like mental blueprints from our past that shape how we perceive things and what we do. It’s akin to a belief that we then project into the future via the feeling of anticipation. Anticipation, in turn, is typically a feeling of excitement: we wait eagerly for something we think we know will happen. Here, already, is where issues can arise when it comes to expectations.

For instance, panic attacks can be brought on simply by believing or expecting that one is going to have them. However, it is hard to break this loop because that feeling of anticipation – while a nightmare for our conscious mind – also provides a sense of unconscious excitement. Expectations essentially function to soothe the ache of uncertainty, and, as our brains have evolved to become ‘predictive machines’ par excellence, we enjoy knowing what will happen, even when the event that will occur causes us pain.

How do expectations form?
Psychoanalytically, the expectation process is rooted in a child’s capacity for omnipotent thinking. According to Sigmund Freud, this is the belief that one can transform the external world through one’s thoughts alone. This capacity is rooted in our earliest developmental phrases, wherein, when a child is fed, they are led to believe that they conjured the food up in front of them, because they thought of the object that had previously come to them when they were hungry. Hence, it’s all ‘in the mind’ – in the beginning anyway.

Typically, children will express omnipotent thoughts in an array of ways. For example, psychologist Jean Piaget elaborated on Freud’s argument to note that young children often engage in magical thinking, wherein we believe that our thoughts can directly cause things to happen (wishes to the tooth fairy, etc). While most of us outgrow this behaviour, examples of it still live on in our adult lives. Manifestation and Law of Attraction practices are the most prominent examples. Yet, I’d hedge a bet that even expectations can be seen as residue from our infantile years of believing we created the world and everything in it.

…And how does this relate to Christmas?
Firstly, the festive period is one of the most ‘omnipotent’ times when we are children. After all, we believed a magical creature brought us the gifts we wished for. As a result, even as adults, it can be hard not to find ourselves engaging in the same kind of anticipatory processes. Secondly, family dynamics are always filled with uncertainty and ambiguity. We love each other as much as we annoy each other, and that uncertainty is precisely what our expectations try to soothe. As a result, many of us find ourselves trying to control each other’s moods and reactions as much as we are trying to control ourselves.

…Okay, and how do we manage these expectations?
In a nutshell, remember that what we are feeling determines where we focus our attention and thoughts, which will lead to actions. For instance, imagine that last year, an argument broke out between you and a family member. When Christmas day arrives this year, the memory of the fight produces an expectation in you. As a result, resentment stirs up in you. But being aware of where our feelings are coming from can help us to avoid acting on our expectations.

Above all else, try showing yourself as much compassion as possible. If it is impossible for you to feel merry right now, admit that to yourself. In so doing, you invoke compassion to your own experience rather than punishment derived from the expectation that ‘it should be different’. This is, after all, the thing we all loved best about Christmas when we were younger – that sense of feeling safe and looked after at the darkest time of the year.

Written by Molly Fitz