In my last blog post, I shared how expectations are the ultimate killer (and why the secret to a better life involves playing the long game).

Here’s another potentially unpopular opinion: We create atrocities of expectations — unrealistic, undefined, unclear, unrealized — because we don’t have any real fear. (At least, most of us don’t.)

It feels to me like everyone needs an enemy to direct their anger, fear and insecurities toward, and without an enemy, we create an enemy. Case in point: the Reagan era. I’d posit that was the last time America was overwhelmingly united. Sure, we’ve had brief moments of unity since then, 9/11 being the most notable, but nothing quite measures up to the Cold War. 

The early years of the Reagan era were incredibly unified. He won the 1980 election with nearly 91% of the vote and reelection in 1984 with 97% of the vote. Can you even imagine such numbers today? By the end of his tenure, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Communism was losing ground fast, and the Soviet Union was no more (as a US/Soviet Studies major in college he pretty much ruined my entire career. But I’m not bitter). We no longer had a unifying arch enemy. And what happened next?

In the absence of that common enemy, we turned inward. And what we got was the “Contract with America” of the ‘90s and a national obsession with a President’s sex life — a time rife with division and a widening chasm between the left and the right. 

Don’t misunderstand me: we’ve been divided before. After all, Kennedy, the President of Camelot,  didn’t win the Presidency by a landslide. He won the popular vote by just 112,827 votes (a margin of 0.17 percent). But it didn’t divide us as a nation; there were no doubts in the faith or integrity of our systems. And look what we went on to achieve: we put a man on the moon.

And just as our society seems to need common enemies (or they turn inward), the same goes for us as individuals. More times than not, when we turn inward in the absence of an enemy, that manifests as self-abuse, self-loathing, judgment, self-sabotage, and unrealistic expectations for ourselves. 

We need something to project our fear, anger, and frustration on. Without that, we’re lost and fear we will be held unreasonably accountable to outcomes that aren’t wholly our fault. So we start searching for anything — anyone. 

And chances are, if we go looking for an enemy, we’ll find one.

According to Harvard Business Review, neuroscience indicates that “Probably 95% of all cognition, all the thinking that drives our decisions and behaviors, occurs unconsciously.” 

In other words, our conscious minds only control about 5% of our actions, reactions and emotions. The rest is with the subconscious on a level we are completely unaware of. 

That’s important because we are not as in control of our mind as we think we are; our subconscious is. And our subconscious isn’t driven by rational thought and language. It’s driven by imagery and emotion. 

That’s why a car salesman so desperately wants to get you into the car. Rationally, you’re asking about financing and maintenance cost, but subconsciously, you’re taking in the new car aroma, feeling the comfort of the seats and the leather steering wheel. And you are unconsciously tapping into feelings: how it would feel to look in the car, to drive the car, to smell that new car smell… The excitement sparks all kinds of activity below the conscious level. And many of us fall victim to it.

I think that knowledge says a lot about the problem of our expectations. Below our consciousness are our emotions, and those emotions are deeply rooted in fear: fear of failure, looking foolish, being wrong, being unlovable… 

And I’m sure that, in turn, has a lot to do with our “need” for an enemy. If we have an enemy, we can blame them for our irrational behavior. In other words, “the devil made me do it.” 

It’s Mikey’s fault, he didn’t do his part, it’s the economy, people aren’t buying, I had a bad night at home… We’ll do anything necessary to make someone else the bad guy so we don’t have to be. Without an enemy, we have no excuse. We’re just being ourselves. And that ain’t always pretty.

So what do we do? 

Well, we can recognize that often, our unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others are likely a deflection, a search for an enemy so we don’t have to be responsible. 

We can pause when going into difficult situations and conversations and ask what we are afraid of. Make the emotions conscious; bring them into the light so you can address them and ask yourself if this is truly how you want to feel. If not, how do you want to feel? 

The beautiful part about the subconscious is that while powerful, it’s completely manageable (well, somewhat manageable). It responds to stories, visions, imagery, emotion. So if you go into that conversation afraid, it will find the evidence to support the fear. But if you go into that same conversation feeling curious, hopeful, maybe even excited, your subconscious will find that as well. Why? Because we find what we are looking for. The problem is that too often we don’t know what we are looking for, so we look for an enemy, a scapegoat.  

So I invite you to notice when you are either looking inward or outward for blame, a scapegoat, or someone to hold aggressively accountable. I’d encourage you to ask what you’re feeling because that feeling, that story in your head — those are the instructions that drive the subconscious. 

Change those feelings, rewrite that story, and some portion of the 95% of your brain becomes your ally. And while you’re at it, drop the expectations altogether and play the long game instead.

So I invite you to take a hard look at your own expectations — personally and professionally. Are they rooted in fear? Are they creating unnecessary enemies — within ourselves and with one another? If so, it might be time for some internal housekeeping. 


Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash