05/28/2015 09:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Change Your World By Changing Your Expectations

On Facebook the other day, I saw a post which read: "What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it's supposed to be." For decades, I was the world's best at fabricating this illusory bubble and criticizing myself mercilessly when I and my life looked nothing like it.

Through 18 years of marriage and for several years of single motherhood after, I tried to live up to the picture I held of a with-it woman who could keep her man happy, use a power drill, edge the yard, and whip up a mouth watering dinner in a sparkling kitchen looking like it came right out of a magazine while she looked effortlessly fabulous the whole time. Right!

Needless to say, I nor my life ever fit this description -- not even close.

After a messy divorce and disastrous post marriage relationship, I found myself feeling like a miserable failure as a woman and mother who was the furthest I'd ever been from this ideal image I had in my head. "This is not how it's supposed to be!" I huffed.

In the years since then, I've come to understand that I was causing my own suffering and torture with my expectations of what I thought life should be. There is no "should be." There is only what is. I can alleviate almost all pain and suffering by getting rid of those nasty "shoulds" and consciously staying accepting and open to whatever unfolds.

Many philosophies teach and I've found from my own experience that pain and suffering come from our attachment to our thoughts about what happens, not what actually happens. Pain originates in the space between our thoughts and reality.

In Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie explains:

A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It is not our thoughts, but the attachment to our thoughts, that causes suffering. Thoughts are like the breeze or the leaves on the trees or the raindrops falling. They appear like that and through inquiry we can make friends with them. Would you argue with a raindrop? Raindrops aren't personal and neither are thoughts.

Katie advises us to meet our thoughts with understanding and inquiry and proposes that behind every uncomfortable feeling, there's a thought that's not true for us. To change stressful, uncomfortable feelings, we must understand the original thought causing them rather than looking outside of ourselves at circumstances or people.

While I still experience the initial "aack!" feeling, my eventual acceptance of what is closes the gap between expectations and reality, ending the pain, and only then, can I calmly focus on how to make the circumstances work best for me. While it's not always possible, I try to drop any expectations as much as I can and remain open to whatever unfolds or at least, be aware of them when they are present.

Enlightened individuals, I understand may never even feel alarm and surprise because they are free of expectations in the first place. With a nonchalant shrug, a highly cultivated mind might think, "Oh, now this." While I'm not anywhere near there yet, I'm much closer than I used to be. I find it helpful to remind myself that just because events cause me pain or aren't what I expected or wanted, doesn't mean that whatever's happening isn't in my highest good or can't turn out OK -- or for the best even in the end.

So many times, circumstances which I pegged as bad when they first showed up turned out to be just fine, when all was said and done. From experience, I've learned not to even begin to presume that I know what's "best" in any situation. What we like, want, and think we need isn't always going to provide growth or even get us to our goal, oftentimes. By trying to force a certain outcome, I limit many other possibilities which could be awesome and bring what I was seeking in the first place.

Life gets infinitely easier when I stay open without expectations.