For many people this is summer holiday season, time to relax, unwind, and enjoy a brief escape from the usual routine.  But sometimes holidays themselves turn out to be stressful experiences.  Family relationships can become strained; travel arrangements are plagued by delays, cancellations, traffic jams; minor accidents or ailments cause upset; the weather is always unpredictable; and there might be other ways in which our holiday fails to live up to our expectations.

If you look on the internet, you can find many self-help popular psychology guides to making holidays and other family occasions less stressful and more enjoyable.  Most of them are common-sense advice for managing conflict and taking care of ourselves.

 A common theme is that unrealistic expectations result in disappointment.  By making our expectations more realistic and flexible, we can spare ourselves stress, disappointment, and resentment when things don’t work out quite as we would like.  There are many other areas of our life where this applies- personal relationships, work issues, everyday living.  Often it is being too rigid, perfectionist, or particular in our expectations of the world that brings us frustration and distress.  Being less concerned with our expectations might enable us to be more open to the experience of whatever comes our way.

But if we followed the advice to scale down our expectations to its limit, we’d reach a position of ‘expect nothing, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised’ or ‘don’t expect, then you won’t be disappointed’.  When I hear someone say that, I’m often hearing a person who has become really rather depressed or cynical about life.  Having no expectations of life can become giving up on hope or desire, and this can mean having no sense of future, of direction, of purpose.  I believe that we need some sense of striving and of anticipation to feel fully alive.

 So one of the arts of living well seems to me to be about balancing our hopes and expectations with an ability to respond constructively when our actual experience falls short of what we had desired and to be open to whatever emerges in the process of living.  Desire and disappointment are inevitable parts of human life.  Understanding how to balance our striving towards our goals with acceptance of our shortcomings, our aspirations for the future with our appreciation of today, requires a thoughtful reflection on ourselves and our lives. 

Existential psychotherapy is one place where this sort of reflective conversation can happen, enabling you to clarify your own expectations, values and goals in living.