Antifragile Expectation Management

Life is full of disappointments. The earlier we learn and accept this, the better. As a part-time child prodigy who got told for the better part of his early life that he had so much potential and could achieve incredible things, I wasn’t exactly on the best path to figure out how to deal with disappointment.

But as many stories go, life happened, and this prodigy came crashing down. Hard and fast. Now look at me, sitting in my cave, rambling to ten strangers on the internet about the mysteries of our shared existence. Word of advice if you ever get children: don’t spoil them with this bullshit, better teach them how to deal with adversities.

The Resilient Monkey

How well we deal with the cards life hands us is mainly determined by something psychologists call resilience.
It’s the mental ability to withstand and recover from all the fucked up shit fate throws at us. Resilience can be learned and trained, like any other ability. But unlike others, the process of achieving a high level of mental fortitude is often a path of severe suffering. Only in retrospective we learn about the things which torment us.

It’s not only a painful path but also a seemingly never-ending one. We cannot predict every turmoil we will encounter. A high level of resilience may fortify us against some of them but there may be events so catastrophic we never could have prepared for.
It’s tempting to think we can prepare for the worst and hope for the best, but reality doesn’t work like that. Unexpected loss, grief, death and tragedy can and will hit every single one of use at some point during our lives.
The question is: how do we prepare for the unexpected?

Expectations – Our Greatest Treasure And Ultimate Demise

Why do we feel crushed, often emotionally and physically at the same time, whenever a specific expectation we had was not met? This gets even worse when it comes to people we care deeply for. We feel disappointed, confused and maybe even a sense of betrayal. They broke a promise once given, did something we never expected them to do or left us in the dark without ever bothering to explain the why.

Pain, frustration, anger, disconnection are all understandable responses whenever we find ourselves in those situations. The reason why the other person behaved that way can be manifold. Sometimes we will be aware of them, but far more often we have to accept the limits of our knowledge.
All the agony we feel comes down to one single aspect: we had expectations.

The moment we expect something from another person, we enter an emotional commitment. The intensity may vary but the mechanism is always the same. Otherwise, we wouldn’t care about their behaviour (Take note, I explicitly make the difference between behaviour and the person showing it. This distinction will be important later), hence not expecting anything.
You may start to think that having expectations is a bad idea. After all, I did call them our “ultimate demise”.

But don’t rush to a conclusion before you heard everything. Yes, expectations can indeed be the very reason why our spirits will ultimately end up being crushed, because all we experience is disappointment.
But.
BUT.
There is so much more to it.
Expectations are the spice of life.

They make our experiences interesting and so much more worth living. Know the feeling before something you are really looking forward to happens? The rush of excitement, the little jolts of joy jamming through your body during the preceding days? This is your expectation doing its finest work. And the very reason why we feel so utterly crushed, if it doesn’t get fulfilled.

Having expectations is not a good or bad thing in itself. But having the wrong ones? That’s an entirely different story.
How do you determine which expectations are worth having and which are better left alone?
One word: experience.

There is no way around it. It is reasonable to have expectations of other people. Trusting their words, the consistency of their behaviour. But life is difficult, and people change. What once was can be gone in an instant.
What you have to learn, is how to manage different kinds of expectations and not only how to withstand disappointment but grow from it.
This is what I call Antifragile Expectation Management.

Reforged In Fire

People familiar with the contents of this blog are already aware of my fondness for the philosophical idea of antifragility, a term popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
The key idea is based on the prediction error.

Meaning, we cannot predict the future, especially not rare and extreme events. But those will happen regardless of what we do, and we need to find a system which is not only able to resist the tides of fate but adapt and grow stronger because of the adversities it faces.
Expectations are quite similar to predictions. Both anticipate that a certain event is going to take place. And both suffer more or less severe consequences if they are wrong.
This is something we want to avoid.

Instead, our goal is to take advantage of this uncertainty and turn it into a stepping stone towards a better version of ourselves.
Don’t worry, this is not going to be some “Tony Robbins believe in yourself mumbo jumbo” but a tad more sophisticated.
My last therapist gave me the best worst advice I ever heard: “Maybe it’s time to look for new friends.”
After I told her about my struggles with all the unreliable people in my life and how it affected me emotionally.

On a surface level this makes sense. People don’t treat you with respect, don’t value your effort or time – why keep them around?
This mantra of “get rid of the toxic people in your life” is all over the internet.
And while I agree with it in principle, life is a bit more complex than that.

Yes, you absolutely should get rid of the people who make you feel shitty over and over again, especially if they do it on purpose and overstep your boundaries repeatedly.
But sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and analyse the situation with a clear head. Maybe they don’t do it on purpose but their own issues prevent them from acting in the you want them to. Maybe you expect something they simply cannot fulfil.
To be clear: I am not saying their behaviour is your fault or that you should feel guilty about it. I just want you to develop an understanding of the possible whys behind their actions.
Then it’s time to make a decision. You have every right to take a few more steps back, draw a line and decide you don’t want or cannot handle the other person at their current state of mind. Never blame yourself for prioritizing your well-being over that of others.

I had multiple friends telling me to ditch other friends because they saw how their actions hurt me over and over again. And sure, that certainly would have been a feasible option.
But I also know myself quite well. I have a tendency to meet people with difficult personalities again and again. If I ran every time things got difficult, I would be quite lonely. And I am sure, I will encounter more people with colourful characters in the future. For me, running was never an option.
But suffering for eternity because of their unreliability is also not an acceptable alternative.

What to do?
How to keep the people I care about as friends, no matter how unreliable they may be without the risk of mentally breaking every time things go not as planned?
I had to shift my perspective.
There was a time in my life when I would completely self-sacrifice my needs for another person. I would pretty much do anything just to ensure the other person’s well-being. This time has been over for quite a while now.
I learned the hard way that obsession and self-sacrifice are not healthy ways of expressing care and love. What good comes from completely neglecting your own feelings and needs just to please someone else?
This doesn’t mean you should become totally self-absorbed and not pay attention to other people’s needs. It is actually possible to protect your own boundaries while taking care of others. And you absolutely should do so. But know your limits and don’t hesitate to take a step back if things start to escalate.

With every disappointment, every emotional hit, every scream inside the dark chamber of my mind I changed. I felt pain, frustration and bitterness. But there was something else. Something more. With each step further into the darkness I became more aware of the opportunity in front of me.
While I will never be able to predict what happens, I can use those incidents to cut away the unhealthy and self-destructive responses I often retreated to in the past. Instead, I wanted to carve out a better version of myself. Physically and mentally stronger, more at peace with what is and cannot be controlled.
Eventually, I realized something obvious but nevertheless important: I need to compartmentalize the people I care about into different categories, if I want to avoid getting hurt by their unreliable behaviour over and over.

Now my brain differentiates between reliable and unreliable friends. People from whom I can expect certain things and the ones who may be around or not. Sometimes there is a grey area of those who are currently in transition, because those categories are not set in stone.
Remember when I said to make the distinction between people and their behaviour? This is what I meant.

I have some very unreliable friends for whom I care equally deeply. Some of the most important people in my life are also the most unreliable ones and by now I would be foolish to expect them to behave in a way according to my needs. That doesn’t make them bad people or anything. There are a magnitude of reasons why they act like they do. I may not understand or agree with them all but if they decide to show up, I can still engage with these friends with great care and affection.

As much as I got hurt in the past due to my failure of proper expectation management, the more I am now capable of simply accepting things as they are. Gone are the endless days of agony asking myself “what’s wrong?” or madly chasing for any sign of approval or even life. Now I simply remind them occasionally that I’m still around and would love to chat if they are up for it but never expect any response. Some people will show up when they show up, not much you can do to speed up the process. The faster you understand and learn to accept this the better.

This understanding also cured me of my saviour trait. In the past, I loved trauma bonding. I thought it served as a highspeed connection to someone’s inner psyche to create a strong bond. While this was certainly true for many cases, it’s also a flawed approach. I fell into the trap of thinking I was able to help someone to overcome their struggles. I wanted to save people.
Your job as a friend is neither to be a therapist nor a saviour.

You can and should be a supportive guide, nudging people into a certain direction but never assume that you will be able to solve their struggles for them. In most cases you will fail and sometimes even make things worse. Your goal should always be to strive together, learn from each other, uplift your spirits and guide them back into the light when darkness arises. But you are not equipped to slay their demons for them and neither should you let yourself be convinced of their attempt to pull you into this fight.

Many friends I know have the tendency to jump from one shitty relationship right into the next one. They cannot bear the thought of being alone and seek their salvation in a romantic partner. I don’t have to point out all the problems connected with that idea. Your job as a friend is to recognize those patterns and avoid getting trapped inside of them as well.

I can give you an example of my own life.
There’s this woman among my friends who has been struggling with a lot of issues for a very long time. She’s aware of some of them and others will remain hidden until she decides to face her own demons. At the same time she’s one of the smartest, broadly interested and most insightful people I ever had the pleasure of meeting. I cannot imagine a situation in which talking to her would ever get boring.

But despite all her amazing qualities, she still struggles a lot with certain issues. Now imagine if she would suddenly come up and ask me whether I would like to take our friendship into the direction of a romantic relationship (I make myself no illusions, this is never going to happen, but think of it for the sake of the argument). On the surface, this may seem like a tempting offer. Amazing personality, similar interests, probably a mutual attraction – what could go wrong?
Oh, so, so much.

See, entering a romantic relationship doesn’t magically solve everything. In fact, it can make some problems even worse and accelerate an escalation. Leaving the fact aside that I would also ruin my reputation of the eternal bachelor, I would refuse her offer, as tempting as it may be.
My response would probably something like this:
Look, you are an amazing human being and I love you. But I know you struggle with a lot of issues currently and I don’t want to be the band-aid you maybe think you need right now. I will gladly support you in any way I can and deem reasonable to help you through them. I am quite certain that I will still think of you as a wonderful person in six months or a year. How about we postpone this idea for now and if you still want to pursue it later, we can both talk about it with a clear head?

By answering like this I accomplished two things.
I recognize a probably unhealthy and not sustainable behaviour pattern which aims to look for short-term distractions rather than long-term solutions. By refusing to take part in it, I offer an alternative course of action. While at the same time trying to validate her feelings by acknowledging that those are mutual but should better be reserved for a more suitable time. There is no guarantee that we will have a happily ever after, but whatever happens is based on reasonable decision-making under uncertainty and not a rushed grasp for something different.

While this scenario was completely hypothetical and is most like never going to happen, I have to admit that I reacted quite differently in the past. There were a few times when I encouraged this exact pattern of behaviour because I tried to save them. I flew too close to the sun and learned the same lesson as Icarus.

Your Pain Is A Teacher

I know this sounds pretentious. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
I will never pretend that the ideas I’m writing here about are going to be easy to implement. It often took me years of running in circles or the occasional brick wall to get where I am today.
But maybe it can serve as a nudge in a different direction. A spark in the darkness if you feel lost on the ocean of shadows inside your head.
I know I did.
Many, many times.

There were moments I could barely breathe due to the mental agony my head put me through. When I talk about the idea of antifragile expectation management and how it has helped me to deal with the disappointment and turmoil of life, then it’s the conclusion of a very long and painful process.

I don’t expect you to snap your fingers and suddenly everything becomes easy and clear. Not at all. Even I know that I will still feel pain and disappointment in the future because of unmet expectations. That’s unavoidable. But I learnt how to categorise it and disconnect it from any question about my own self-worth.
I know I’m not a terrible human being simply because other people don’t behave in a way they said they would. Sometimes life just happens and that’s all there is to it.
Our self-worth is not based on the question whether others do as we expect. We alone bear the burden of responsibility to focus on our own needs, set healthy boundaries and keep improving every day. And if that means that your highest accomplishment is getting out of bed, then this is okay as well.
We all start at a different place.
The only thing that matters is the first step.

You are a decent human being. Behave accordingly.

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