Attachment, Expectations and Anger Management--Part II
From previous articles, I have been talking about expectations and anger. I've been using small examples to illustrate a big psychological “orientation.” Here’s a bigger example, which might “drive” home the point.
Next time you are operating your car, notice that when you approach a stoplight that has just turned red, you stop. Why? Because you know that cross traffic has just gotten a green light and is about to traverse the intersection. Obviously, if you don’t stop, likely there will be a collision. Conversely, why did they “go” when they had a green light? Because cross-traffic knows you are looking at a red light and they expect you to stop. These are all collective expectations, which in this example are encoded into traffic laws. Drivers hopefully obey these laws for safety. The point is that we don’t even think about these things, but once learned, in the back of our minds, they operate automatically as expectations, in this case in the form of law, which govern our group driving behaviors. We don’t think of these things until one or more of our expectations are violated, and we react especially negatively when we have strong attachments to having those expectations met.
In this example, if I go through the intersection when I have a red light, chances are there will be an accident, which will likely be quite a shock to the person I hit. There will be damage to the vehicles or even loss of life. These are really big expectations, and our attachment to them is great because the consequences of violating these particular expectations are potentially life changing. On a smaller scale, say in the case of causing a smaller accident (“fender-bender”), the consequences will be inconvenience and monetary, but still big enough to engender attachment.
While these examples are larger than more ordinary daily experiences, they illustrate the principles underlying the emotional reactions we all have to even lesser events. For example, suppose your partner (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend…) constantly does something you do not like. This could be nagging, leaving clothing around or being late for appointments. By themselves, these are not huge events, but your reactions, qualitatively, are the same. You have expectations, in these cases less articulated or perhaps less obvious, and those expectations are being violated, one time, two times, chronically. Sooner or later, you are going to be frustrated in proportion to the amount your expectations are violated and even more so precisely to the point you hold onto them (attachment).
If the frustrations are chronic, tension will build and if not expressed, will result in some sort of outburst. This is what I call the “Shut Up, Shut Up, Blow Up” model. Normally, we talk about what bugs us, and to do this effectively, we need to be assertive, preferably without much attachment. However, assuming this is not the case, we still need to talk to vent. If we are healthy, we might have expectations to not have many expectations, or expectations to not have much attachment to our expectations. These are healthy adaptations to the human condition.
However, you might argue, “We all have expectations” and that it is impossible to not have them. I agree. To illustrate just how many expectations we have and just how much we are attached to them, try the following experiment. Try going just one minute without having any expectations. Try not to expect anything. In this next minute, you don’t expect the phone to ring, that you will not float off your chair and bump into the ceiling, that your shoes laces will stay tied, that your heart will continue beating, that the world will continue turning. If you really get into this, you will quickly realize that having no expectations is impossible. Try it and you’ll see. I’m not advocating having no expectations because that is silly. Trying to bury expectations and calling them non-attachment is also not what I’m talking about. This would be detachment, which also is not healthy. I’m advocating reducing expectations with cognitive technique and ultimately suspending as much attachment to those expectations by changing your thoughts and awareness. As mentioned above, you can’t do this without some forethought and practice.
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