Lower your expectations

Why expecting to have the perfect vacation or retreat can make you feel miserable


You’re very much looking forward to a well-deserved vacation. After a year of struggling between family and work challenges you really needed some time out. Who knows what awaits you in the fall – you’d better enjoy this vacation as much as possible. It’s supposed to be the perfect vacation – pure bliss, with a perfect mix of relaxation and physical effort, harmonious family moments, great food, deserted beaches, restaurants with no waiting times, perfect weather and swimming pools with empty sun loungers.

However, from the start, one catastrophe follows the other. At the airport the flight is delayed, chaos ensues with stressed and unfriendly airport staff, the car rental is a rip off, the sun loungers at the hotel pool are always occupied by other people, it is too hot (or too rainy), the beaches are packed with tourists and in the restaurant, the children are constantly fighting while it takes ages before the food is served.

There is no way you can relax with these adverse circumstances. Moreover, you start to feel guilty when you’re unable to let go and relax. When you get home, you felt even more stressed and depleted than before leaving, and you’re left with the perception that this was the worst holiday ever.

Sound familiar?

Do you know the feeling when your own lofty expectations prevent you from enjoying something? Do you tend to set the bar quite high for your life and for yourself and then feel disappointed and maybe even self-critical when things are not going the way you expected?

We experience this same phenomenon in our mindfulness courses; people expect to feel totally zen and relaxed after a meditation, but when they notice that their mind is distracted or that they feel restless they instead feel even more stressed. Likewise, when people come to our retreats, they sometimes have the expectation that it should be a whole spa-like experience of a weekend – that it should be pure bliss. When difficult feelings and sensations come up, they feel frustrated and even blame themselves for not doing it the way it “should” be. 

Resisting reality can be like throwing a second arrow of suffering at yourself

This is what in Buddhism is called the 2 arrows of suffering. The first arrow is the one of pain – the difficult stuff that arises. The second arrow is the one you throw at yourself by resisting the unpleasant reality which causes suffering. And often you even throw a third arrow of suffering by blaming yourself for feeling bad.

This is exactly what we practice in mindfulness. Sometimes we can even avoid the first arrow by not expecting perfection. If we do not expect anything, then anything that is positive can already give us joy. How would it be if you allowed your life to be messy and not perfect? How would it be if you would allow yourself to be only human with imperfections like everyone else?

However, sometimes you cannot take away the first arrow– the difficulty – but even still, you can reduce the suffering by dealing differently with this first arrow.

You can learn to allow things to be as good as you can, exactly as they are, and to let go of all expectation. It is a life-long practice to accept the thing as they are – independently of whether you like them or not. We have the automatic tendency to want to accumulate pleasant experiences and to push away anything that’s unpleasant. Yet life always presents a mix of both. When we let our happiness be defined by external conditions such as the weather or getting the things we can never achieve lasting happiness as things change all the time.

It’s better to learn to accept the difficulties and to handle them wisely, fully taking in what’s nourishing, even if it’s just a very small thing. I find it helpful to sometimes add the phrase “this too belongs” and deep down in my cells know that it’s ok for my life to be imperfect.

How mindfulness helps to manage your expectations

Mindfulness is purposely paying attention to whatever arises in the present moment, non-judgementally. It is paying attention to your physical sensations, thoughts, mental concepts, and feelings when you’re walking down the street, driving a car, or writing an email. It is the ability to simply see or sense things as they are without reacting upon them. This attitude can be of great help in managing your expectations.


1. Setting healthy expectations

When planning or starting something, make sure your expectations are reasonable. Unrealistic expectations are destined to leave you disappointed or create conflict. Sometimes by questioning your expectations it can help to dissolve them as unrealistic (is expecting a perfect vacation really realistic?). Sometimes it can be helpful to be aware that these expectations are there and have the possibility to create a bias, so they lose their power on us.

2. Adjust your expectations to the new reality

The fact that things change constantly is part of life. Sometimes an unexpected circumstance will come along to shift the scope of your project, and expectations will need to be adjusted. When this happens, you have a choice. React emotionally, with anger, fear, or resistance, or apply mindfulness, pause, and consider your options before making a decision about how best to proceed.

Mindfulness enables choice, the opportunity to respond wisely instead of reacting blindly.

In this situation it can be helpful to take a 3-min breathing space. This will allow you to become aware of how you are feeling and to ground yourself so that you can respond in a helpful way to the new situation.

You can practice a breathing space here.

Imagine how different the story from the beginning of this article might go if there were no expectations for a perfect holiday with no incidents. There might have been some moments of disappointment, but these moments can also be an opportunity for practising accepting and loving kindness phrases towards yourself.

For example, “The summer vacation is starting and there are lots of people leaving on holiday and not enough staff at the airport. May I be kind and calm amid these circumstances and make the best out of it.” You might even find some pleasant, small moments, like the taste of a good coffee while waiting for the plane, or a moment of connection with your children, or the fact that for the next two weeks you can disconnect and not answer any emails. You might even see the good in the bad; maybe by waiting for a long time in the restaurant you’re forced to invent some games with the children and felt more connected.

Sometimes the simple fact of stopping the struggle of needing everything to be perfect can already bring you quite some relief. This choice provides you with a regained power over the situation and helps you to adjust. 

After all its not so much what happens to you it's how you perceive and react to it. There is the saying that: "you cannot prevent the waves, but you can learn to surf". And that's the practice- learning to surf the waves of life with falling and getting up again.