The courage to have great expectations

I started getting excited a couple days after Christmas. I’d applied for a $500 flash grant and felt a surge of buoyancy when the foundation’s director messaged me to see if I’d received her email. Why would she be anxious about getting in touch if I wasn’t the winner?! As I waited for her to try sending the email again, my confidence and anticipation intensified. When I finally uncovered the notification where it had gotten waylaid by junk mail filters, I was darn near giddy with glee. The subject line read “Marva, you are our December grant winner!”

Half a second later I went into shock as I read the first paragraph and began plummeting down an emotional avalanche. “Congratulations! You have won a micro-grant in the amount of $55.” What the hey?! Did they forget a zero? Is this a typo?

As I processed my disappointment, I went back to the website, which clearly referred to $500 grants. Then I tracked down the Call for Submissions and found a key statement: “The amount depends on the final balance in our account on December 22.” I remembered reading this sentence through my inner optimist’s rosy lenses and interpreting it as implying I might very well get MORE than $500!

As I digested the news, I zipped through a micro-version of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), as I think we all do when we are caught by surprise. Writing this post is my way of working through the last two stages.

What’s most amazing is not that I managed within an hour of receiving the news to write a gracious reply with a request for clarification of the award amount, but that I allowed myself to raise my expectations that high in the first place.

You see, many years ago—as a young child—I taught myself to lower my expectations as a technique for preventing disappointment. Can anyone out there relate to that?

Marva in 6th Grade

By 6th grade I was adept at lowering my expectations

I employed that tool for 30 years or more before waking up and noticing a persistent pattern: no matter how low I dropped my expectations, people and situations still disappointed me. I finally figured out the reason: what I expected most strongly was that I would be disappointed. And I was, again and again and again.

By bracing myself for the worst, I left little if any room in my world for lovely surprises and happy outcomes. And, in fact, when circumstances seemed to be going well, I invariably had the shadowy suspicion that at any moment someone would announce there had been a mistake! I vividly recall sitting on my couch in an extraordinary new living space about 15 years ago and having a panic seize my heart as I imagined a knock on my front door with this news: I’m sorry, but you don’t deserve this.

The hardest part

For decades I was trapped in the dark clutches of my lower brain’s natural bias toward noticing the negative, a throwback to hunter/gatherer ancestors who presumably had little time to stop and smell the wild roses because they needed to be alert for saber-toothed cats and other potentially-deadly dangers. All these millennia later we can still find ourselves stuck with choosing from the primitive brain’s limited menu of options: fight, flight, freeze.

The good news is that humans have the power to consciously overwrite this old program and move from the dingy, danger-filled basement of the lower brain to a roomier, lighter apartment upstairs in the front of the brain. Decision-making works differently in the penthouse, with time to pause and consider before responding. There is a really wise and creative Upstairs Committee always available for consultation, and I love learning how to tap their ingenuity.

Which leads me back to the disappointing news that I’d received a $55 grant instead of a $500 grant. With a panoramic view of options from the comfy couch in my sunny mental apartment I could actually watch the incoming information arrive in the basement and provoke a rapid anger-fear-despair routine. But because of the hard work I’ve done to install strong stairs and a speedy elevator, the data and emotions arrived fairly quickly up in the mental penthouse where I could take a deep breath and respond more constructively with the help of the Upstairs Committee.

Down in the Doom Room I heard the usual commotion: I never win anything. Why even bother? I might as well tell them to keep their money. People are so misleading; this is probably some kind of scam. You can’t trust the Internet. What was I thinking? Why did I even waste my time? I should have known this was too good to be true.

Up in my higher mind there was a much different set of options under discussion: Maybe it’s a typo; I could write to express my confusion and request clarification. I’ll be able to cover this month’s electric bill at Insight with that money. I am so glad I can consciously choose to be gracious and grateful instead of defaulting to anger and defeat. This could be a good illustration for a blog post!

For the skeptics—what good are great expectations? You only got $55—I have some important news: a day or two after I applied for the grant I received an unexpected check for $500. I’ll just leave you to ponder that along with the reminder that my initial expectation was that I might very well get MORE than $500!