Making and Breaking Expectations

Expectations and Desires

Expectations are tricky paradoxes. Being a perfectionist means I often must throw my expectations out the window because they are unrealistic. When I don’t reach those lofty expectations of myself, I run the risk of simply giving up entirely. Rather than feel proud of what I do attain for myself, in any facet of my life, I tend to short change myself.

Internal versus External

For quite a while now, I’ve been focusing on eliminating external expectations. Instead of going to the gym with a set number of reps to complete or miles to run (or walk) or calories to burn, I’ve been focusing on internal expectations.

I’m aiming more and more of my energy toward internal expectations and goals. Rather than a number, I’m asking whether a session at the gym made me feel happier, whether it made me feel stronger, more limber, or got my endorphins going. Rather than base my experience of the task in the context of the external, I’m looking to the internal to guide my experience.

Ever-Changing Goals

Last summer I was a surf lesson photographer. I was paid in either two ways, commission off my photo sales, or hourly minimum wage. Whichever was higher for the day was what I got paid. That meant that some days I could spend almost eight hours in the water, taking photo after photo, and only making $10.10 an hour, if I sold no photos.

Money on My Mind

On some of my most lucrative days, however, I could make upwards of $300-400, selling almost all my photos. In the beginning of the summer, if I walked away with over $150, I was happy. Each time I earned more, I set the bar higher. But, that meant that when I didn’t reach that same goal the next week, I was distraught. Regardless of the quality of my photos or how much fun I had doing my job that day, if the numbers weren’t better than the week before, it was a “bad day.”

In the same way that I shifted my focus at the gym, I had to shift my focus at work. Instead of seeing a dollar amount as an accomplishment, I had remember the fun waves I’d long-boarded that day, how many surf lesson students I encouraged, and how many times I smiled, instead of how many times I sold photos. And, once I shifted my focus, a crazy thing happened. I started earning more, more often, on my photos. In pushing myself to re-orient my priorities, everything fell into place better than I could have imagined. Paradox, right?

Surfing and Expectations

Which brings me to today’s latest surfing experience. The last couple weeks have not been fun sessions. I’ve been trying my best to focus on my smile count, instead of my wave count, and on being in the ocean rather than conquering it, but it hasn’t been lining up very well for me (literally and figuratively). I’ve been taking some spills, and this morning, as I paddled out, I was ready to get out of my negative cycle and just play in the ocean.

A Fresh Start

I woke up excited, ready to meet my friend and jump in. Surfline said the conditions in town were amazing, and the swell which had peaked yesterday was only down slightly. I was hoping the Tuesday early-morning crowd would be gone, and the mid-morning emptiness would combine with killer conditions for a great session. I got in my car, excited to pull up to the parking lot and get in the water. Instead of what I’d envisioned, I was greeted with a crowd, bigger than I’d expected, a 10-minute wait for a parking stall, and an uptick in the wind as soon as we got to the break.

Paddling Out

“No biggie, it’ll still be fun,” I thought to myself, watching as another random set crashed through. Everyone was falling, and the take-offs were a little fast thanks to the Tasman energy. I caught my first wave, my sunscreened hands slipping and the white wash immediately launching me forward. Laughing it off, I paddled back out, more determined to catch a wave, to conquer this swell. On my second wave, I paddled, hard. As I was flying down the face, I realized my board was a tad too small for the size as I wobbled, barely hanging on.

Failures and Mistakes

Instead of making a clean cut back, I shot up the face, under-rotating to come back down the line, and ended up kicking out on accident. “I’ve got this, I can do it,” I told myself as I made my way back out through the channel. “Just have fun,” I kept thinking, as I paddled for the smaller waves on the shoulder, only to get bombarded by the set waves on the inside. I duck-dived, and then I paddled, then I duck-dived again, and paddled some more, and duck-dived again.


Finally, seeing another monster on the horizon, I turned tail and caught the white wash in, which catapulted me into the dead zone. I turned back around and headed, once again, for the channel, determined not to let myself get frustrated, not to give up. Cut to fifteen minutes later, after another 4-wave set taken mostly on my head, and I’m back on the inside, and I’m crying.

I’m crying because the last two weeks of frustration have all caught up with me. I’m crying because I feel stupid, and angry, and that everyone else is making it look easy. I’m crying because my body doesn’t feel right, and I don’t know why…because I’m tired, and I don’t think I should be, because I keep wanting surfing to be enjoyable, and lately it’s only been one aggravation after another, one session after another of discontent.

Recouping and Regrouping

I floated there, on the inside, my legs dangling and my board perpendicular to me, with my elbows across the board and my head in my hands, crying. I couldn’t stand it—the frustration, the exhaustion, the hope and excitement I’d felt before getting in the water—it was all too much to be getting pounded and upset and washing-machined.

I took several deep breaths, I put my face in my hands, and I got my mind quiet. I waited for the internal storm to abate, quietly whispering words of calm to myself. I took time to re-set. I took time to get my expectations reeled in and re-oriented towards the internal, rather than the external, and then I opened my eyes, having remembered something I always manage to forget and then re-remember when I go surf:

there are no expectations except the ones I set for myself, and those can be whatever I want them to.

Re-Framing My Thoughts

I remembered that my expectations, this bar I set for myself to reach, isn’t real, is often not even what I truly want, and mostly leads to sadness and shame. I grew up being hard on myself for everything, but I’ve been, over the last 5 years, learning that my greatest enemy is my inner critic. But I’ve also been learning that my greatest support is myself, that I am my best cheerleader.

I gathered myself, taking several more deep breaths, stretching my aching shoulders, and headed for the channel. I sat outside of the break, watching how the waves were breaking, clearing my head of all standards, of all aims and objectives except 1: head in from this session happy.

That was it.

Re-Gaining My Power

Once I based my expectations on something internal, something I could control, like how I felt about being out in the ocean, rather than how I performed or how many waves I caught, I felt a weight lift. I felt that freedom I love so much about surfing that keeps getting me back in the water even after the tears and the frustration and the wipeouts.

Small Victories

I caught two waves, two short little rights, almost back to back, and instead of thinking about how they could have been better, or how they weren’t as good as what everyone else was catching, I thought about smiling. I thought about riding a wave and being out here on a Tuesday morning with everyone else lucky enough to live here, to be able to surf, and I smiled.

Playing Head Games

Where I’m going with all of this is that expectations are powerful mental intentions. Expectations help us achieve amazing things, because goal-setting and goal attainment are critical aspects of improvement in an area of life. Setting goals for yourself keeps you from becoming stagnated, and keeps your momentum going, but when expectations are too high, or too external, they become detrimental. Expectations can make a great day into a terrible one, or they can make a terrible day into an amazing experience…it all depends on your perspective, and what you decide to take away from it.

Finding Freedom

Objectively, the waves or my jobs or my relationships are just what they are, but it is when I project too much onto them, expecting too much either from myself or from those tasks, that I lose sight of what’s important.

Expectations keep me going, but they can also stop me in my tracks. As I said, they are tricky little paradoxes. Like any tool, they can be used for good, or evil. But, just as with any other tool, the person using the tool decides how to utilize that tool, how to take advantage of the tool, or how to injure oneself with it. So, the next time I paddle out, or I set my expectations too high, and inevitably end up on the destructive side of expectations, I’ll keep reminding myself that the only person making up these expectations is me, and that the only person who must decide what those are is myself.

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