Redefining Success: How To Find Freedom In Letting Go of Expectations
By Anna Berger
Something I wish someone told me when I was eighteen and just starting college would be, “Don’t hang onto the expectations you have coming in.” Over the past few months, I’ve had time to ask myself many questions about my own expectations. How did they come about? Are they influenced by society? Do I feel pressure from friends and family to conform to “standard” expectations for myself? Am I a failure because I have to let go of certain ideals every now and then?
Finding out who you are can be a rollercoaster of good, bad, and ugly experiences. It’s easy to feel discouraged when expectations of how your life is “supposed to go,” don’t go according to plan. Over the past few years, I’ve learned a few lessons about what it means to let go and how to achieve freedom from perfectionism.
The first lesson I have been re-learning over and over is that you’re not a failure if you have to change your original plan or expectations. The feeling of freedom can come from letting go of roadblocks and negativity. In some cases, we associate freedom with breaking out of an expectation that you originally thought was going to bring success, when in reality it’s making you more distressed. A TED Talk that does a really good job at depicting our own expectations is called Why We’re Unhappy – The Expectation Gap by Nate Ware. A quote that stood out to me during this talk was, “We’re unhappy when our expectations of reality exceed our experiences of reality.” Our perceived happiness and feelings of success can be heavily influenced by our expectations of what we think reality should be. Personally, if I have an idea or plan I like to stick to it. Why not? If I have a perceived plan, I ultimately will know what’s going to happen, right? As much as I’d like to think my plans go exactly how I anticipate them, that’s not always the case. Learning the hard way that although planning and organizing are great, having an equal amount of flexibility and awareness to adapt to the changing world around us is just as important.
A very specific example of letting go of expectations and learning how to adapt would be the last semester of my Senior year of College at The University of Minnesota Duluth. I graduated this May as a part of the 2020 class. When I left for my spring break, I had no idea I wouldn’t be returning. Not finishing up my last semester at school, not having a graduation ceremony, not being able to say goodbye to friends, professors, or the city I’ve lived in for four years was devastating. All of a sudden, the expectations I had when leaving for spring break would shortly become irrelevant. After the initial blow of finding out that my last semester wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, it led me to understand that although I have every right to be upset, I can’t let that disappointment control the determination I had before the COVID-19 outbreak happened. My life doesn’t stop because I’m disappointed in a certain outcome. The only option is to keep pushing forward which is so tough at times, but worth it when I can see the manifestation of my progress.
It’s hard to let go of plans, ideas, or certain expectations we’ve set for ourselves, but why is that? I spent a lot of time wondering why it was so hard for me personally to let go of plans that are no longer going to work, or ideas that aren’t manifesting themselves in the way I thought they would. This is largely due to the fear of rejection and comparison. Nobody wants to feel minimized because they have to switch their original plan. It would be a lie if I said I didn’t feel a little judgment every now and then from friends and family during reunions or get-togethers, explaining why certain plans haven’t worked. Judgment can be hard when it comes from people you care about and look up to, but that feeling doesn’t compare to the damage you do to your own mental health and wellbeing when you compare yourself to others.
This leads me into my next lesson: The more you compare yourself to what people around you are doing, the less time you’ll have to work on your own happiness. The horrible cycle of comparison can be an easy trap to fall into. I understand that it’s necessary to struggle in order to truly appreciate successes, but I recognize how it can be discouraging when the expectations you set for yourself are not a reality. Another point Nate Ware made in his TED Talk was, “…we compare our reality to the reality of others. Put simply, we judge ourselves based on what we experience around us.” This process is what Nate calls the interpersonal gap. As an example, how I judge myself is loosely based on comparing my own successes with those around me. This can lead me to think I haven’t done enough or that I need to do more in order to feel successful around those who are of a similar age. What I’m learning slowly but surely is that success doesn’t just have to be based on “the norm.” Success isn’t measured by the qualifications on paper, it’s the experiences you have that shape you into a better person. There should be no shame in living life the way you want to, and although judgment and criticism can occur, that shouldn’t stop you.
My last lesson is that life shouldn’t be 100% serious. As I get older, I do see areas of my life becoming more stressful and urgent. The issue I sometimes have is determining when I can spare time to be able to destress and find ways to laugh during the day. Growing up, I always loved making others laugh around me. This is a characteristic I still have to this day and it’s one that I believe makes me successful. In every position I’ve been in whether that’s professional or not, I try to show others around me that you can still be hard working and have fun at the same time. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100% serious in life. Even when I’m fifty, I still want to try to channel that part of my personality that likes to have fun.
One of the assumptions I have is that when we take life too seriously, that’s when the stress of perfectionism and expectations becomes our main focus. When I was eighteen I didn’t really know who I was. A part of me felt like I needed to strive for perfection and set high expectations for myself in order to feel “successful” around others. In reality, that was diminishing my own happiness and I didn’t know how to replace that feeling. Once I made a few friends who were older than me, I was able to see how comfortable they were with themselves. The common thread amongst their happiness was that they didn’t take life so seriously to the point where their expectations exceed reality. Our happiness can diminish when we start to take life seriously to the point where we no longer live for ourselves, but rather live to please others. Reaching that balance of working hard while still having fun and enjoying life is very achievable. Once you let go of expectations that are holding you back, and start making changes for yourself that are necessary, the feeling of success will come naturally.
It’s important to have a set of values that you can live by to improve your own personal goals. At Find Your Power, we strive towards diversity, collaboration, inclusion, positive social impact, and respect. In order to develop your own values, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions regarding your own expectations. For this next section, grab a pen and paper to answer these questions for yourself! This set of questions and tips will help you develop your own values and assist you in learning how to let go of certain expectations.
- What’s your true motivation? – what’s the explanation behind your words or actions?
- Think of your expected outcome and the worst-case scenario – Can you handle anything less than your ideal result?
- Have alternatives when you can – There’s nothing wrong with having a backup plan to assist you in moving on.
- Don’t take things too seriously or personally – You can control your emotions and motives, however you can’t control someone else’s. Don’t be too upset if someone doesn’t think or act the same way you do.
- Take inspired action – You should always act on inspiration and drive.
- Accept human frailty – Even if you mess up now and then, learn to accept those mistakes and move on from them. Nobody’s perfect but don’t let those feelings hinder your motivation.
- Forget about it – Once you do something, complete it and then let go. There’s no need to sit around and wait for validation or feedback.