In 2006 I had the pleasure of being introduced to Arianna Huffington. It was such an honor to begin blogging on the site during the beginning years and also get to know Arianna. She has continued to be someone I deeply respect personally and professionally. Since she has been a role model to me for nearly a decade, I wanted to get her advice on how to deal with what I call "Expectation Hangovers."
In my own life and my work with others, I have seen that our greatest suffering comes from when our reality does not match our expectations. However, disappointment can also be a catalyst for profound and positive change. As someone who has thrived through many unexpected events in life, I knew Arianna would have incredible insight on the topic of overcoming disappointment. I trust you will be as inspired and comforted by her words as I have been.
CH: You are a woman who many would say "has it all": success, health, family, abundance, power, beauty, prestige, and so on. Do these blessings also come with expectations? From others? From yourself?
AH: Yes, especially from myself. Over time I've gotten much better at silencing the harsh inner voice I call the obnoxious roommate living in my head. This voice feeds on putting us down and strengthening our insecurities and doubts. Educating our obnoxious roommate requires redefining success and what it means to live a life that matters, which will be different for each of us, according to our own values and goals (and not those imposed upon us by society). Humor helps in dealing with that constant inner critic. "Angels fly because they take themselves lightly," my mother used to tell my sister and me, quoting G. K. Chesterton.
CH: How do you navigate and manage expectations?
AH: I breathe! The connection that conscious breathing gives me is something I can return to hundreds of times during the day in an instant. A conscious focus on breathing helps me introduce pauses into my daily life, brings me back into the moment, and helps me transcend upsets and setbacks.
CH: Would you please describe an Expectation Hangover you have had that was particularly challenging?
AH: Unreal, and very unhealthy, expectations were major factors in my painful wakeup call. On the morning of April 6, 2007, I was lying on the floor of my home office in a pool of blood. On my way down, my head had hit the corner of my desk, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I had collapsed from exhaustion and lack of sleep. In the wake of my collapse, I found myself going from doctor to doctor, from brain MRI to CAT scan to echocardiogram, to find out if there was any underlying medical problem beyond exhaustion. There wasn't, but doctors' waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living and the unrealistic expectations I had for myself.
CH: Was there a turning point or pivotal moment during your Expectation Hangover that began to transform your experience with disappointment?
AH: After my wakeup call, I looked back on my life and saw other times when I should have woken up but didn't. This time I really did and made many changes in the way I live my life, including adopting daily practices to keep me on track -- and out of doctors' waiting rooms. The result is a more fulfilling life, one that gives me breathing spaces and a deeper perspective.
CH: From your point of view, what is the purpose of disappointment? How does it serve us?
AH: Disappointment is a close cousin of failure, and I have failed many times in my life. I watched HuffPost come alive to mixed reviews, including some very negative ones, like the reviewer who called the site "the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar, and Heaven's Gate."
But my mother used to tell me, "failure is not the opposite of success, it's a stepping stone to success." So at some point, I learned not to dread failure. I strongly believe that we are not put on this earth just to accumulate victories and trophies and avoid failures; but rather to be whittled and sandpapered down until what's left is who we truly are.
This book is such a refreshing reminder of a timeless truth: that we all have within us the ability to meet life's challenges, be empowered through adversity, and move from struggle to grace.
CH: In your book Thrive, you discuss how the pursuit of success and money is not the formula for happiness and peace. Many people may get this on a mental level; however, still have difficulty letting go of the expectations they have to be successful and rich. What advice do you have for highly driven people who are attached to external success?
AH: Our current notion of success, in which we drive ourselves into the ground, if not the grave -- in which working to the point of exhaustion and burnout is considered a badge of honor -- is not working for anyone. This doesn't mean that we have to give up striving for success, but we need to free ourselves from the collective delusion that burning out is the necessary price for accomplishment and success. Recent scientific findings make it clear that this couldn't be less true. Not only is there no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal, wisdom, wonder and giving.
CH: How do you balance having a big vision for impacting the world with letting go of expectations? How do you balance all your responsibilities without losing yourself?
AH: I'll share an example of a decision I made that allowed me to let go of some of my own expectations. I did a major "life audit" when I turned forty, and I realized how many projects I had committed to in my head -- such as learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook. Most remained unfinished, and many were not even started. Yet these countless incomplete projects drained my energy and diffused my attention. As soon as the file was opened, each one took a little bit of me away. It was very liberating to realize that I could "complete" a project by simply dropping it -- by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage? That's how I completed learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook and a host of other projects that now no longer have a claim on my attention.
CH: One of topics you discuss in Thrive, which I love, is the importance of intuition and connecting to our inner wisdom. What is one step we can take to begin fostering this connection?
AH: Introduce five minutes of meditation into your day. Eventually, you can build up to fifteen or twenty minutes a day (or more), but even just a few minutes will open the door to creating a new habit -- and all the many proven benefits it brings.
Steve Jobs, a lifelong practitioner of meditation, affirmed the connection between meditation and creativity: "If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there's room to hear more subtle things -- that's when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before."
CH: Finally, what have been your biggest lessons and blessings from your Expectation Hangovers?
AH: The biggest lesson is that living in a state of gratitude is the gateway to grace. Gratitude has always been for me one of the most powerful emotions. Grace and gratitude have the same Latin root, gratus. Whenever we find ourselves in a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset, we can remember that there is another way and open ourselves to grace. And it often starts with taking a moment to be grateful for this day, for being alive, for anything.
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